How Our Legal System Punishes Moms Who Smoke Pot

By Elizabeth King

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Stoners are often considered to be lazy burnout bros who reside in their grandmothers’ basements.

Mothers are expected by society to be paragons of old-fashioned virtues who daintily skip along the straight and narrow (in heels and an apron, ideally).

Moms who smoke weed, then, defy not one, but two damaging stereotypes that are deeply steeped in our cultural consciousness.

While the overall stigma surrounding cannabis is lessening, a lot of people still have a huge problem with the idea of a woman with kids lighting up and having a joint, or even using weed to treat a medical condition.

Kiri Westby wrote for the Huffington Post about how she was afraid to come out as a marijuana mom in Colorado (where weed is legal) because she knew people would judge her as a parent. “I’m worried that readers are going to question my parenting and that I should prepare myself for a visit from Child Protection Services,” she wrote in 2014. “I’m a little concerned that everyone I encounter from now on, personally or professionally, will be asking themselves if I’m stoned at that very moment.”

Still, false assumptions and judgements aren’t stopping moms from being vocal about the ways weed fits into their life.

Jessie Gill is a Registered Nurse, writer, and mom of two kids, and has been medicating with marijuana “around the clock” for the last 11 months to treat pain and spasms that result from skeletal spasticity resistant to conventional treatment. Jessie tells me that while she smoked pot regularly earlier in life, she was “extremely resistant to try medical marijuana because of the stigma.” Gill’s own mother was the one who talked her into giving cannabis a try as a last resort when nothing else was working.

Gill was taking valium and opiates to manage her pain and spasms (and even more pills to treat the side effects), but says she was able to stop taking both the day she started her medical marijuana. “Getting off of opiates instantly made me a better mom,” Gill tells me. “I had energy and I was able to think straight again. The depression began to lift. I could meditate, plan meals, and go for a walk in the park.”

Julianne Graves* also saw her life change for the better after medicating with cannabis. A 32-year-old mother of one and a freelance writer, she started smoking weed 14 years ago, over 11 years before her toddler was born. Graves says that weed actually helps her as a parent. “If I’m feeling stressed out by the pressures of motherhood, I can take a couple hits from the vape and suddenly have much more patience for my child,” she tells me over email. “It makes playing with him even more enjoyable and makes me more imaginative in my play. So long as I don’t get too stoned, it’s the perfect companion to parenthood.”

Graves and Gill are far from alone in their feeling that marijuana makes them better mothers. A posse of mothers in Beverly Hills, California who refer to themselves as the “Marijuana Moms” became a bit of a sensation a few years ago, claiming that using marijuana makes them better parents.

The mostly white group of women (stay tuned for our piece tomorrow on the whitewashing of the marijuana movement) are also quite wealthy; as such, they are not reflective of every demographic of mothers who use weed, and are sheltered from many legal threats in that regard. Still, they sing the praises of weed as a helper for their parenting. “When I use cannabis, quite frankly it does make me a better mom,” Cheryl Shuman, who is founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, told Bancroft TV in 2013. “Because I’m calmer, I’m more rational, I’m not angry, I’m not stressed.”

One of the other women in the group, January Jones (not to be confused with the actress), told Bancroft that cannabis helps treat her early onset arthritis. “I wouldn’t even be able to pick up my daugher [without cannabis],” Jones said. “It makes me a more creative mom, a more relaxed mother.”

Increasingly, our culture is embracing mothers who smoke. The lifestyle website The Stoner Mom, for instance — which features the slick aesthetic of a conventional lifestyle site — showcases a blog, podcasts, edible recipes, and reviews of weed strains. And earlier this year, Elizabeth Banks’ comedy network, WhoHaHa, launched a web series called Cannabis Moms Club, about mothers who meet up for collective toking sessions. And then, of course, there’s the growing collection of articles and essays challenging stigmas about moms who smoke.

Yet despite this growing cultural recognition for moms who smoke, significant legal issues remain.

Graves tells me that, although she has used marijuana for years, she stopped smoking during her pregnancy and cut back a lot afterwards because she doesn’t live in a state where weed is legal. This question of legality is one that causes anxiety for a lot of cannabis users, but there’s an extra layer of fear for Graves as a mom. “I’m always terrified that when I go buy some, I’ll get picked up by a cop and have my child taken from me,” she says.

Graves’ concern about being taken away from her kids isn’t just a passing, casual fear. The fact that marijuana is not legal in all states and is still federally criminalized makes arrests and possible separation from families due to incarceration a very real and scary reality for many mothers.

A significant share of drug arrests are for the sale or possession of marijuana specifically — and according to a February 2016 report on women and the war on drugs from the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 75% of women in prison for drug convictions are mothers. The war on drugs has disproportionately targeted people of color, and women and moms of color especially have been hard-hit by conspiracy charges, and are often imprisoned merely for living with significant others who were in possession of or selling marijuana.

75% of women in prison for drug convictions are mothers.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws in some states require that judges give marijuana offenders sentences ranging from several months to life, meaning mothers can be separated from their families for decades if convicted.

Ashley Keeton, a mother of four children, was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for delivering a large amount of marijuana in 2011. Keeton was 23 years old at the time, and was looking for fast cash when she met a dealer at a party, and agreed to deliver the cannabis. A non-violent first-time offender, Keeton said in her Families Against Mandatory Minimums profile that her “whole family is slowly just falling apart” as a result of her incarceration.

“I wish people could see that putting people in prison for so long and tearing apart families doesn’t help anything and never will,” Keeton says. She is scheduled to be released next year.

There is ample evidence that such punitive punishments are indeed damaging to families. Recent studies have demonstrated that having an incarcerated parent puts children at increased risk for developing substance abuse problems, academic trouble, and behavioral issues.

There’s no denying that the stigma and war against marijuana has a heavy and unjust impact on moms. Whether moms toke up for some well-deserved relaxation or to help with a medical condition — or if they sell or are partnered to someone who uses or sells — federal and many state laws are not on the side of mothers.

Laws are changing slowly, but in the meantime, marijuana moms are still living their lives and taking care of their kids — vaporizers and all.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the subject.

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