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New Mother, Arizona Marijuana Patient, Won’t Be Charged

A mother birthing a baby with marijuana in its system can’t be charged with child neglect with a doctor’s authorization

Brennan Linsley/AP

A mother birthing a baby with marijuana in its system who is authorized to use medical Cannabis won’t be charged with child neglect, an Arizona court ruled Friday.

The state Court of Appeals overturned a decision by the Arizona Department of Child Safety to put Lindsay Ridgell on the agency’s “Central Registry.’’ That’s an official list of substantiated instances of child abuse and neglect, reports Tucson.com. The decision to place Ridgell on the registry made by Department of Child Safety Director Mike Faust, reports the Arizona Republic.

Judge Randall Howe, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, said the agency erred by ignoring Ridgell had a card entitling her to use Cannabis for medical reasons. He said the 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act provides immunity for those with such a state-issued card from being subject to arrest, prosecution, penalty or denial of any right or privilege.

Arizona Protects Medical Marijuana Patients

Judge Howe acknowledged that DCS contends Ridgell never told the doctor who recommended the marijuana that she was pregnant. Ridgell disputes that point.

But the judge said none of that matters. Under Arizona law, he said, pregnant women aren’t charged with neglect for taking medications “under the direction of a physician.’’

And since no one disputes Ridgell had a doctor’s recommendation, that’s the end of that.

Arizona voters made medical marijuana legal in 2010; in 2020, they legalized adult Cannabis use as well.

Judge Claims Arizona Protections ”May Be Unwise”

Judge Howe’s opinion distanced itself, however, from the very law it upheld. Howe stressed he and his colleagues weren’t endorsing protections for pregnant women who are marijuana patients, saying it “may be unwise.’’

“The United States government does not recognize the medical value of marijuana,’’ he wrote. “And the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns of the effects of marijuana use during pregnancy.’’

Howe also said the 2010 law requires warnings at Cannabis dispensaries, and on cards, about the supposed dangers of marijuana use on a fetus. “But marijuana’s proper role in society has been long debated, and the wisdom of legislation is not for this court to decide,’’ he wrote.

A spokesman for DCS said the agency is reviewing the decision and has no comment.

Marijuana Patient For 10 Years

A doctor authorized Ridgell, a Dewey, Arizona, resident, to use medical marijuana about 10 years ago. The doctor recommended Cannabis for Ridgell’s irritable bowel syndrome and she has used it ever since. She continued to use marijuana after becoming pregnant in September 2018.

She renewed her medical marijuana card in late December 2018, telling the certifying doctor she was pregnant.

The doctor warned Ridgell she might be reported to DCS upon birth. But the physician said Ridgell is “likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefit from … the use of marijuana to treat or alleviate the qualifying patient’s debilitating medical condition.’’

In May 2019, the expectant mother again saw her obstetrician. Ridgell told that person she had stopped taking marijuana when she found out she was pregnant.

Two later later, birthed a baby boy who stopped breathing a minute after delivery, requiring resuscitation. Physicians transferred the baby to Phoenix Children’s Hospital after they said he exhibited “jitteriness’.’.

Tests revealed the baby had marijuana, an anxiety drug, caffeine and Benadyl. The hospital then reported to a ”substance exposed” baby to DCS.

Substance exposure constitutes neglect in Arizona if not caused by treatment administered by a health care professional.

Ridgell Objected To Placement On Central Registry

DCS, after an investigation, placed Ridgell on its Central Registry. They took that action even though the baby remained healthy. No physician linked the baby’s “jitteriness’’ to marijuana use.

The registry, sometimes referred to as a blacklist, identifies people alleged to have neglected or abused children. 

Ridgell objected to this. She noted being on the list can affect someone’s ability to work with a child welfare agency or any firm that providing state services to children or vulnerable adults. The appellate judges agreed with her.

“No One Disputes That Ridgell Is A Qualifying Patient”

“No one disputes that Ridgell is a qualifying patient under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act,’’ Howe wrote. “And her marijuana use is the equivalent of taking any other medication under the direction of a physician.’’

Ridgell’s attorney, Julie Gunnigle, said the decision is important, especially in child welfare cases.

“All use is presumed to be medicinal use,” Gunnigle said. 

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