04/09/2014 07:41 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Marijuana Supporters Worry Colorado Bills Target Pot-Using Parents

Bills recently introduced in the Colorado Senate may criminalize what's now the legal use and cultivation of marijuana by parents, according to some marijuana advocates.

SB-177 and SB-178, introduced this month, seek to standardize the definition of a "drug-endangered child" for health and social services providers, law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

But marijuana advocates said the language of the bills has them deeply concerned.

"I know there’s a lot of fear out there, but in this case it’s unfounded," state Sen. Linda Newell (D), cosponsor of the bills with Sen. Andy Kerr (D), told The Huffington Post. "We’re not targeting anybody."

Newell said the bills have been in development for nearly 10 years -- long before Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 and a few years after medical marijuana was legalized in 2000.

"I am chair of the mental health caucus and the children’s caucus and my biggest push the last couple of years has been suicide prevention, because Colorado is one of the highest in the country," Newell said. "And one of those issues is we are number two in the country when it comes to prescription overdose. That’s really my biggest concern. So when the criticism came from the marijuana community, I was surprised."

But some supporters of legal marijuana said they believe the bill targets families and marijuana-using parents unfairly and is a way to continue the prohibition of marijuana.

"Within the proposal, the mere attempted use or possession of illicit substances accompanied by the presumption of harm -- not necessarily evidence of neglect -- is grounds for a claim of endangerment," wrote Laura Pegram, policy associate with drug policy reform group Drug Policy Alliance, in an op-ed for The Denver Post. "Considering exaggerated, inaccurate stereotypes about the harms of drugs, this definition will prompt potentially baseless, traumatizing family separations resulting in the removal of kids from families without actual evidence."

William Breathes, marijuana reporter for Denver's Westword alternative newspaper, wrote that the bills could "arguably make cannabis-using parents criminals."

But Newell denied she's trying to undermine Colorado's marijuana laws.

"I took an oath to uphold the constitution," Newell said. "Medical and recreational marijuana use is a right in Colrorado, I absolutely support that."

The bills define the term "drug-endangered child" uniformly for the state's children's code and the criminal code. Newell said the goal is simply to protect children.

SB-177 defines a "drug-endangered child" as a child in a case in which:

  • In the presence of a child, or on the premises where a child is found or resides, a controlled substance is manufactured, distributed, cultivated, produced, possessed, or used, or attempted to be manufactured, distributed, cultivated, produced, possessed, or used and when such activity threatens the health or welfare of the child.
  • A child's health or welfare is threatened by unrestricted access to either a controlled substance or any legal substance capable of causing mental or physical impairment.
  • A child's health or welfare is threatened by the impairment of the person responsible for the care of the child if the impairment is due to the use of either a controlled substance or any legal substance capable of causing mental or physical impairment.
  • A child tests positive at birth for either a Schedule I controlled substance, a Schedule II controlled substance, unless the child tests positive for a Schedule II controlled substance as a result of the mother's lawful intake of such substance as prescribed.

When asked why the bills don't provide specific protections for legal medical and recreational marijuana users, Newell said, "if you start putting in specific language for one, you’d have to do it for alcohol, prescription drugs, for every single substance. It's a delicate balance, walking the thin line between no overreach and no under-reach. We’re just trying to have a synchronicity between law enforcement and child protection to make sure they are all doing the same thing. These bills just clarify."

Sierra Riddle, a Colorado mom who is growing marijuana at home to help treat her 4-year-old child's cancer, told KRDO that the bills make her "nervous."

"I think that [medical marijuana] needs to be regulated in such a way that it's regulated for the benefit of the patients, not for the benefit of everybody else's want to be safe,” Riddle said. Riddle said she hopes to share her concerns with lawmakers when the bills reach the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Newell said parents who use or grow marijuana shouldn't be scared by the legislation.

"I have a friend who has been on medical marijuana for years and she’s been a caregiver and she has an 8-year-old child," Newell said. "I’ve been to her home many times and you would never even know if there was marijuana in the home. This is a safe, loving home. This bill will have no effect on her because she doesn’t have an injurious environment."

But Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project, told The Huffington Post he's skeptical.

"We all want to keep children safe, but it’s hard to see how this bill would make them any safer," Tvert said. "We already have child endangerment laws on the books, and this proposal raises more concerns than it alleviates. Adults in legal possession of marijuana should not be subjected to more intense scrutiny than adults in legal possession of alcohol, Drano, insect repellant, or other common household poisons."

But keeping children away from common household poisons was just what Newell had in mind with the bill, comparing the legislation to that of childproofing a home for a new baby. "When you have a baby, you go out and you get the covers that go over your outlets and that kind of thing, it’s that exact same idea."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bills this week.



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