Arizona officials say they will stop investigating reports of marijuana exposure in newborns so long as the parents are registered medical cannabis patients.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) said a state appeals court ruling that upheld parental rights to use medical cannabis means that its own policy must be revised.
That case concerned a mother who petitioned to have her name removed from a registry for people who are deemed to be potential threats to at-risk populations such as children. She was placed on that list after her newborn tested positive for THC metabolites at a hospital, and the appeals court unanimously ruled last year that the mother’s status as a medical cannabis patient meant she needed to be removed from the registry.
After the state Supreme Court declined to take up the case on appeal, DCS said it is implementing a reform to broadly enact parental medical cannabis protections, AZ Central reported. Specifically, the administration of Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) will work with DCS to update its hotline and other policy resources for child welfare reporting to reflect the court precedent.
The new policy change only affects cases involving parents who are registered medical cannabis patients and does not impact rules surrounding recreational marijuana use.
“Under current law, the Department is required to take a report and investigate prenatal substance exposure that is reported to the Department for recreational, but not medical marijuana use, if the parent has a valid medical marijuana card,” a DCS spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. “A change to state law would be required for the Department to no longer take reports on recreational prenatal use.”
That said, the use of marijuana or other drugs after pregnancy is not on its own considered evidence of child neglect, the spokesperson added. Drug use must be shown to be “causing a substantial risk to the child” in order to warrant investigation. And even then, “the Department does not remove children for substance use” alone.
“The Department removes a child when a parent or guardian’s substance use makes the child unsafe, and the safety concern cannot be remedied in a less intrusive way,” they said.
Several DCS policies “require updates subsequent to the [court] decision,” the spokesperson said. “Following a change in administrations, current Department leadership is working through updating the policies and messaging the updates to the field and stakeholders. We expect to update our hotline tool by next month.”
Kathryn Ptak, general counsel for DCS, said the department receives around 400 reports related to drug exposure in newborns each year, more than half of which involve marijuana. It’s unclear how many of those cases concern parents who are registered medical marijuana patients.
State-level marijuana legalization has led to a number of child welfare reforms in recent years.
For example, the governor of Maryland signed legislation into law in May to make it so the lawful and responsible use of marijuana by parents and guardians will not be construed by state officials as child “neglect.”
Relatedly, the governor of California signed a bill last year that includes provisions mandating that social workers who are called to investigate child welfare handle parental marijuana use in the same way that they do for alcohol.
A study published in August found that states that legalized medical marijuana saw a nearly 20 percent drop in the number of children entering foster care due to parental drug misuse after three years of the reform. Legalizing for adult use, meanwhile, was not associated with any statistically significant change in foster care entries.
That said, a separate study published last year determined that cannabis legalization is associated with at least a 10 percent decrease in foster care admissions on average, including reductions in placements due to physical abuse, neglect, parental incarceration and misuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.