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Changing Pot Laws Prompt Child-Endangerment Review

A Colorado man loses custody of his children after getting a medical marijuana card. The daughter of a Michigan couple growing legal medicinal pot is taken by child-protection authorities after an ex-husband says their plants endangered kids.

And police officers in New Jersey visit a home after a 9-year-old mentions his mother's hemp advocacy at school.

While the cases were eventually decided in favor of the parents, the incidents underscore a growing dilemma: While a pot plant in the basement may not bring criminal charges in many states, the same plant can become a piece of evidence in child custody or abuse cases.

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"The legal standard is always the best interest of the children, and you can imagine how subjective that can get," said Jess Cochrane, who helped found Boston-based Family Law & Cannabis Alliance after finding child-abuse laws have been slow to catch up with pot policy.

No data exist to show how often pot use comes up in custody disputes, or how often child-welfare workers intervene in homes where marijuana is used.

Image: Moriah Barnhart, Dahlia Barnhart
Moriah Barnhart gives her three-year-old daughter Dahlia, who has cancer, a cannabis treatment with an oral syringe, at her home in Colorado Springs. Brennan Linsley / AP

But in dozens of interviews with lawyers and officials who work in this area, along with activists who counsel parents on marijuana and child endangerment, the consensus is clear: Pot's growing acceptance is complicating the task of determining when kids are in danger.

A failed proposal in the Colorado Legislature this year showed the dilemma.

Colorado considers adult marijuana use legal, but pot is still treated like heroin and other Schedule I substances as they are under federal law. As a result, when it comes to defining a drug-endangered child, pot can't legally be in a home where children reside.

Two Democratic lawmakers tried to update the law by saying that marijuana must also be shown to be a harm or risk to children to constitute abuse.

But the effort led to angry opposition from both sides — pot-using parents who feared the law could still be used to take their children, and marijuana-legalization opponents who argued that pot remains illegal under federal law and that its very presence in a home threatens kids.

- Associated Press