Branstad declares Drug Endangered Awareness Day

The officer, clad in riot gear and a protective gas mask, picked up the 7-month-old baby who was wearing only a sagging diaper. The child’s home was the scene of a drug bust, a meth lab in the bathroom and marijuana plants growing in the baby’s bedroom. The baby didn’t cry, but he looked at the officer with glazed eyes.

Then, protective services removed the child to a foster home.

This is only a sample storyline behind Gov. Terry Branstad’s proclamation of April 24 as Drug Endangered Awareness Day in Iowa, a proclamation he signed during the recent Drug Endangered Children Conference held in the state.

There is a push statewide and nationally to protect children from dangerous drug environments. Drug endangered children are those who are in need of intervention and assistance because their lives have been seriously and negatively impacted by a parent or caregiver’s illicit drug use, according to Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, of the North Metro Drug Task Force, Thornton, Colo., and Stacee Read, of the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman. They were keynote presenters at the 2013 Drug Endangered Children Conference held in Altoona.

Because Colorado legalized the use of medical marijuana, Gerhardt and Read are uniquely positioned to discuss legalization’s effects on kids.

According to Read, child abuse is directly related to marijuana use. She cited unsettling statistics:

  • In the United States, 58 percent of new marijuana users are under the age of 18.
  • After Colorado legalized medical marijuana there was an increase in child-related emergency room visits in regard to marijuana.
  • Reasons for emergency room visits include the ingestion of marijuana buds or leaves by children, and neglect or maltreatment due to parents who used marijuana.
  • Children in homes where drugs are used are three times more likely to be abused and four times more likely to be neglected than in non-abusing families.

It is impossible to regulate growing and transporting marijuana now that the drug is legal for medical purposes, according to Gerhardt. While Colorado law limits medical marijuana use for cancer or AIDs patients and for chronic pain, at issue is another problem: Medical professionals cannot accurately assess when someone is or is not genuinely in chronic pain, thus they find themselves prescribing medical marijuana to people who are faking pain.

States that have legalized medical marijuana have poor registration data, if any; what data does exist shows that people between the ages of 18 and 25 comprise the largest percentage of persons receiving medical marijuana.

Still, it is widely available in Colorado. Since medical marijuana was legalized there, the Metro Thornton area has gained 300 marijuana dispensaries, Gerhardt said. To offer a comparison, he said the same region is home to 70 Starbucks.

Colorado hosts a conference on medical marijuana, holds a growing contest for the “best marijuana,” is emblazoned with marijuana ads on Metro buses and in print publications, and celebrates Light Up Day at the state capitol in Denver where thousands of people, many of whom are underage, gather once a year on the designated day and light up.

The legalization of medical marijuana has done all this, but its effect on children is the target of Gov. Branstad’s proclamation. The children who are most at risk are between the ages of birth and 5. Small children are unable to talk about what is happening at home, let alone remove themselves from it.

Add to that this dilemma: Increasing numbers of teens no longer view marijuana as a risk. According to the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey, 28 percent of Hamilton County 11th-graders think it’s either not wrong or just a little wrong to smoke marijuana; 22 percent of those 11th-graders say they have used it.

Statistics show that one in six teens who use marijuana will become addicted. Compare that to the one in 25 adult marijuana users who become addicted and you begin to detect the problem. In Colorado, minors obtain medical marijuana infused in products that are commonly marketed for youth. They run the gamut from marijuana suckers, soft drinks, “Pot” tarts, Rice Krispie cookies, and sacked candy to flavored mixes for coffee and water.

To deal with the problems that follow the legalization of medical marijuana, states will need to increase the ways they combat the consequences, whether that is through education and training for service providers, protective services for children, or both.

The child in the storyline mentioned above is caught up in those consequences.

Foster care has kept the 7-month-old safe and his parents completed their treatment, but they are now awaiting court dates to face drug charges. They see their baby in supervised visits.

It is not the life any child, especially one in Iowa, deserves.