Given the medicinal qualities of cannabis, one could argue that toking parents might be more relaxed caregivers, more capable of handling screaming teething babies or puberty-confused teenagers.
But don’t tell that to child protection agencies across the province currently dragging parents – including those using the herb medicinally – to court for allegedly endangering their children’s well-being.
How many pot-related cases are currently before the courts or on child protection agency files is difficult to estimate. These agencies say they don’t keep such stats. But the number is in the dozens, according to medical marijuana users who’ve been visited by social workers. The cases are usually prompted by complaints from a former spouse or info turned over by police who’ve busted medical users for growing their own.
Several Toronto Compassion Club (TCC) members are currently under the watchful eye of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. They decline to speak on the record to NOW about their experiences for fear of reprisals from CCAS. But such encounters with child protection agencies across the province suggest that social workers’ personal views on pot are skewing their decisions about whether cannabis impairs parenting skills.
"It’s a never-ending battle because parents have to prove their use is medicinal,” says TCC executive director Jim Brydges.
Just ask medical pot user Travis Azzopardi how nasty CCAS can get. He’s willing to talk publicly now that his case has been settled. He says CCAS demanded he undergo 365 urine tests over a three-year period – weekly, biweekly, then finally randomly. “They stuck a microscope up my ass for two and a half years,” he says.
Azzopardi’s non-verbal autistic son Brandon is 18 years old and just recently learned to use the toilet.
“They said I might get stoned and pass out, and he’d turn on the stove and burn the house down,” explains Azzopardi, who’s on a disability pension and smokes to alleviate pain from severe migraines. “The doobies barely make me normal. But they didn’t give a damn about it being medicinal, even with two doctors’ letters.”
Steve Bacon, another licensed medical user investigated, says child protection officials he dealt with for eight months never noticed when he showed up medicated to meetings. Yet he says they were making decisions about whether he could keep his daughter based on the assumption his marijuana use was impairing his ability to care for her.
“I told them I’d been smoking before every meeting. Last I ever heard from them.”
Like Ontario’s building inspectors and animal control officers, Children’s Aid workers can enter a dwelling sans warrant.
The one guard against overzealousness built into the system is the requirement that a worker appear before a judge within five days to explain his or her reasons for entering a premises.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies created the “eligibility spectrum” as a tool for assessing whether a child is being abused and how severely. But “the spectrum is not intended to replace worker judgment,” according to the document outlining its applicability.
Suset Silva of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto responds to questions about pot cases via e-mail.
“The level of concern [about marijuana] would depend on the level of the use, the exposure of the children to the use and the impact of the use on the ability to parent,” she writes.
“It is not possible to comment on the frequency [with which] the society might request drug testing for a client. It could happen on an individual case, but would depend on several factors that would be taken into consideration when assessing risk to the child(ren) and planning for a desired outcome.”
But does cannabis consumption adversely affect parenting skills?
Not according to McMaster sociology prof Andy Hathaway, who’s also a researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and recently completed a study on the stigma associated with pot use.
“Cannabis doesn’t impair parenting,” says Hathaway, but stereotypes surrounding its consumption are having a negative impact on parents.
“We’re hesitant to be open about cannabis because the social stigmas are still there. Weeds or That ’70s Show, may be expressions of pro-cannabis culture, but temperance is setting social policy directives,” Hathaway says. “I don’t think it’s that uncommon for a mother to test positive for cannabis and then have her child taken away, because it’s very much a temperance issue. She smokes pot, hence she must be a bad parent.”
But lawyer Roselyn Zisman, who specializes in family law, says she would be shocked if the CAS were taking the children of pot-puffing parents into custody.
“Generally, a social worker wouldn’t consider this a concern if it’s just recreational cannabis. Marijuana is still illegal, but social workers are not the police. Is there a different agenda with these cases? I’ve never seen it.”
Still, Zisman adds, agencies can be “very intrusive.”
Chris Goodwin, a recreational user and activist who runs the Up in Smoke Café in Hamilton, knows that all too well.
Area child protection workers, he says, came calling for a hair sample and asking about his son this past summer after he took part in an anti-prohibition rally at which he gave away a quarter-pound of weed. The agency was responding to a police report in which he admitted smoking in front of his son Chris.
Goodwin is not about to let the ordeal shut him up. He says it’s the police who are actually putting his son in harm’s way by threatening to have CCAS remove him, not his pot smoking.
“Some people say I’m playing with fire. But I never brought this one on me,” Goodwin says. “It’s different down at the store. There, I’m an activist, but I’m a dad and husband at home.”