NYC child welfare agency still citing marijuana in family separations despite legalization, state policy change

Marijuana was legalized statewide in March 2021. Many Democrats rallied around the racial equity that legalization was supposed to bring. The law enshrined what was already supposed to have been ACS policy for years: No parent shall be found neglectful only because they use marijuana, without proving harm or its potential to the child.

But court records and interviews with people directly involved in ACS proceedings suggest New York City’s child welfare system has been slow to change since changing its policy and since legalization, with marijuana continuing to be used as a cudgel against families, attorneys leaning on old taboos, and family court judges allowing outmoded ideas about marijuana to persist.


“We have seen ACS interrogate the validity of the prescription both by wanting to speak directly with a doctor, or questioning the veracity or authenticity of the prescription — and then taking it a step further by even questioning the medical decision to prescribe the marijuana,” said Nila Natarajan, supervising attorney and policy counsel of Brooklyn Defender Services’ Family Defense Practice.

When asked about the claim, ACS repeated its assertion that it looks at all cases in the context of child safety.

But Natarajan and others argue that the agency portrays these parents as using marijuana to self-medicate and as therefore showing signs of mental instability.

"Let's say that parent also sees a mental health professional,” Natarajan said. “We have seen ACS go to the mental health professional and say, 'Oh, do you know this person is prescribed marijuana? What's your assessment of their marijuana use? Is it really OK for them to be using marijuana?'"

The cannabis bill signed into state law in 2021 notes that “the sole fact that an individual consumes cannabis, without a separate finding that the child's physical mental or emotional condition was impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired … shall not be sufficient” for proving neglect.

But critics say ACS continues to flout the new measures.

View the full Gothamist article here.

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