Blog Post

Restrictive Marijuana Laws Hurt the Most Vulnerable - Children

Julie Netherland

Those who would perpetuate the failed drug war claim they want to protect the children.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The drug war overall, and marijuana prohibition specifically, hurts young people.

Restrictive marijuana policies and limited medical marijuana laws have simultaneously kept very sick children from getting the medicine they need and saddled tens of thousands of young people with criminal records that severely limit their future chances in life. Our marijuana policies are hurting, and in some cases, killing our youth.

The situation is so dire in New York that the Cuomo Administration recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, following up on an earlier letter to U.S. Attorney General Holder sent on August 13. Both letters asked the DOJ to extend a narrow, time-limited exception to federal law to allow the importation of certain strains of medical marijuana from other states for use by children in New York with severe forms of epilepsy. Senators Schumer and Gillibrand followed suit with their own letter asking DOJ for relief.

Since New York’s medical marijuana bill was signed, at least three New York children with severe seizure disorders have died. Medical marijuana has dramatically reduced life-threatening seizures in other children with similar conditions, but families in New York are facing an eighteen-month wait until the new medical marijuana law is implemented.

Cuomo has urged the Department of Health to expedite access to medical marijuana for these children, but a web of outdated and draconian laws have made it impossible for these critically-ill children to get the medicine they need. Each day these parents are forced to wait knowing that their children are losing ground and may die. And this isn’t just a problem in New York. Many states have never passed any medical marijuana law, leaving thousands of vulnerable patients, including children, to needlessly suffer.

Meanwhile, marijuana prohibition is destroying other young lives all over the country. In New York, which decriminalized the possession of marijuana in 1977, a loophole in the law has resulted in tens of thousands of young people – predominantly African American and Latino young men – are arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Worse, the law is being enforced unfairly and creating enormous racial disparities. And that doesn’t even get to the tragic loss of young life that sometimes occurs when the police enforce marijuana prohibition. It is a nation-wide problem.

How are these policies protecting our kids? They aren't.

They keep medicine from sick children and sweep thousands of other young people – the vast majority of whom have no previous arrests-- into the criminal justice system, while doing nothing to improve public safety. If we really want to protect our kids, we need to do away with policies like these that do more harm than good.

No one wants to see more young people using marijuana, but we can work to protect young people from the potential harms of marijuana through sensible policies that don’t simultaneously prevent sick children from getting needed medicine or criminalize thousands of young people of color.

In New York, we can start by creating an emergency access program for medical marijuana for the sickest New Yorkers and passing the Fairness and Equity Act, which would help end unlawful marijuana arrests of young people of color.

Our kids do deserve protection. So let’s protect them by putting an end to destructive marijuana policies and enacting sensible, humane reforms.

Julie Netherland is the New York deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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