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Medical marijuana use won't trigger child abuse investigation, Arizona agency says

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The Arizona Department of Child Safety soon will no longer investigate reports of marijuana exposure in newborns — as long as the parent has a medical marijuana card and there are no other allegations of risk to the child.

The shift in policy, scheduled for next month, could affect scores of pregnant women. It comes in the wake of a state Court of Appeals ruling that found Arizona's medical marijuana law protects such use because the patient is under a doctor's care.

The state Supreme Court declined to review that decision, effectively making the appeals ruling the new legal standard.

"We believe under Ridgell we do not have the authority to investigate prenatal exposure," said Kathryn Ptak, general counsel for DCS, the state's child welfare agency.

That's a reference to a case involving a pregnant woman who was using medical marijuana to curb the effect of hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition that causes severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

Lindsay Ridgell, the woman at the center of the case, cheered the pending policy shift.

"It's just amazing," a jubilant Ridgell said Monday. "Moms don’t have to worry anymore.”

A former DCS worker herself, Ridgell was told in her hospital bed after delivery that her infant son had tested positive for marijuana and that a case would be opened against her.

Although she didn't lose custody of her child, DCS told her she would be placed on the Central Registry, a list the state maintains to flag people who might be a threat to vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. Placement on the registry lasts 25 years and can limit employment options.

Ridgell decided to fight the listing. More than three years after her son's birth, she prevailed.

Ptak said given the court ruling, the agency under new governor Katie Hobbs was obliged to follow the law.

"The new administration noted, post-Ridgell, the tools for the hotline had not been updated to reflect what the law requires," she said.

The hotline is where the public and mandated reporters are directed to report cases of suspected abuse or neglect.

Ptak said the agency gets between 350 and 400 reports of substance-exposed newborns every month, and about 60% of them involve marijuana. Very few of those reports result in a child being removed from his home, she said — about 4%.

Advocates praise Arizona's approach

Advocates for more leeway in how substance abuse during pregnancy is treated said Arizona's example could be the first step in a new approach.

“I think we should think about the broader implications of this," said Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, which advocates for the civil and legal rights of pregnant people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical agencies have established there are safe ways to manage substance abuse during pregnancy, Sussman said.

"I would encourage the Arizona administration to recognize that there are medications that are safe to use during pregnancy," she said. A person doesn't lose their rights just because they are pregnant, she added.

Joelle Puccio, of the Academy of Perinatal Harm Reduction, said the policy is a positive step, but it shouldn't be the last.

“Substance abuse in the absence of the risk of harm and neglect should not be investigated," said Puccio, who is a registered nurse and holds a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

"I would hope we would focus on what is actually happening with the kid.”

Ptak said DCS policy focuses on whether a child is affected by substance abuse, as opposed to driven solely by a parent's use of a substance.

As for Ridgell, having her experience shape state policy is the best thing to come out of her ordeal.

She didn't try to regain her job at DCS, which she lost when the substance exposure case was filed. But she has found employment elsewhere and got a clean recommendation from DCS.

Her son, Silas, is now 4 1/2 years old and entertains his mother by telling jokes, she said. Well, one joke that he has mastered thus far, she said: "How does the ocean say goodbye? It waves."


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