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How legal marijuana will affect troubled families

Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado, the intent is to regulate the drug like alcohol. That's not so easy in practice. As attorneys practicing family law in Colorado, we know how consequential the new law will be for families, and how far the state must go to address unresolved issues.

By Alexandra White, Carolyn Witkus / March 4, 2013

A caregiver picks out a marijuana bud for a patient at a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo. on Sept. 18, 2012. Attorneys Alexandra White and Carolyn Witkus discuss the complications legalized marijuana creates for families, especially in custody battles. 'One place to start answering the vast range of questions we raise is with research that aims to produce a method of testing that easily determines level of impairment.'

Ed Andrieski/AP/File


Littleton, Colo.

Last fall, voters for the first time approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use at the state level – in Colorado and Washington. Since then, much attention has focused on the conflict between state and federal law, which still classifies the drug as illegal. But state legalization also raises important questions at the personal level. Many of them center around the family.

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As attorneys practicing family law in Colorado, we feel it's important to consider these questions, especially since the push is on for recreational legalization in other states. Oregon, California, and Maine may be next. (Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.)

Colorado's constitutional amendment states that individuals can purchase marijuana from authorized retailers and that licensed growers can produce commercial quantities for retailers. The intent is to treat marijuana like alcohol. That's not so easy in practice.

Based on our legal experience, we'd like to offer a scenario – fictional, but realistic – to illustrate how consequential Colorado's change will be for families, and how far the state still needs to go to address unresolved issues.

Consider Michael and Elizabeth Jones who have two children, Ashley, age 16, and Monica, age 13. The parents are no longer such a happy couple, although they all still live in a lovely home in Highlands Ranch, a well-off suburb of Denver. Ashley is a rebel – hanging out with the wrong boys, sneaking out of the house late at night, and thumbing her nose at her parents' authority now that she has a driver's license and a car. Monica is just the opposite of her big sister, struggling at school socially.

'But honey, it's legal now.'

Three to four nights a week, Michael quietly steps into the backyard or goes to the basement to smoke a joint. Elizabeth has never approved of his marijuana use, and as the children get older she has increasing concerns about their exposure to it. Michael says: "What's the big deal? It's legal here now. You don't hear me complain when you have wine after dinner."

The final straw comes when Michael decides to make some extra money to pay down credit-card bills (the perfect family vacation to Hawaii is expensive). He starts a small grow operation in the basement to sell marijuana. Elizabeth files for divorce – and she doesn't want Michael to have the children at all because she believes that the grow operation and his recreational marijuana use are dangerous to the children.

What happens to families when pot is involved? Drug use is often an issue in divorce and parenting cases. Usually, one parent does not approve of the other's drinking or use of illegal drugs – or addiction. Historically, it's been fairly easy to take a case to court with proof that a parent is illegally using drugs and limit that parent's contact with the children.


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