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Smoke Pot, Lose Your Kid (If You're Black)

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August 19, 2011

I have some friends who grew up in homes where their parents smoked pot. Their parents also loved them, fed them, clothed them, quizzed them for exams, nursed them when they were sick, cheered their accomplishments and sent them off into the world well-equipped to handle life’s challenges. None of these parents neglected their children or jeopardized their children’s safety.

But New York City’s child welfare system sees things differently. They believe that possession of minor amounts of marijuana is grounds to take a happy and safe child away from his or her parents.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported New York City’s child welfare agency has been actively pursuing parents for child neglect who are found with marijuana in their home. Mind you, we’re talking about amounts that are often too low for even a misdemeanor conviction. And they’re pursuing these neglect cases even when there are no signs of abuse, negligence or any problems whatsoever within the home.

This pursuit of pot-smoking parents is particularly surprising when you look at how marijuana is viewed in this country. Eighty-one percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized for medical use. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use and many more, including New York, have decriminalized low-level possession.

Funnily enough, I don’t recall any of my friends’ pot smoking parents ever being afraid of their children being taken from them or of getting in trouble with the law. Sadly, the truth is that — like many other disparities in the criminal justice system — they did not need to worry because of the color of their skin. In New York City, even though white people use marijuana at a rate twice as high as African-Americans and Latinos, neglect cases based on marijuana are rarely ever filed against white parents.

The indiscriminate and racially discriminatory enforcement of this policy has resulted in the tearing apart of families of color — sometimes over something as small as a $5 bag of marijuana. When we say the war on drugs is a war on families, this is exactly what we are talking about.

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