Shakira Kennedy was 27 years old and living in Brooklyn when she found out she was going to have twins. While many women experience morning sickness in their first trimester, Kennedy’s unrelenting cycle of nausea and vomiting was so severe that she ended up in the emergency room multiple times throughout her pregnancy. She was treated for a slew of health issues, including dehydration and an inability to keep food down.
“I must have lost over 30 to 40 pounds in my first trimester,” says Kennedy.
Her body was completely depleted, so much so that she even passed out once on the train while taking her six-year-old daughter to school. She cycled through numerous prescription medications and dabbled in all kinds of over-the-counter fixes, but nothing worked. Desperate for relief that would still allow her to function as a parent, Kennedy turned to cannabis.
She had used it recreationally when she was younger and found it helped with various ailments — from lack of appetite to constipation — and hoped it could now be helpful in treating the barrage of symptoms associated with pregnancy. With New York medical marijuana licenses typically reserved for those with cancer or chronic illnesses, Kennedy sourced her weed through the illegal market. She used it, and it helped.
“It was literally the last resort,” she says.
At one of Kennedy’s prenatal visits, she admitted having used marijuana to help manage her debilitating symptoms. She was drug-tested and the results came back positive. Kennedy was told the test would be recorded in her medical file, and she thought that would be the extent of the fallout.
Yet when she returned to the hospital to deliver her twins a few months later, her babies were drug-tested for a range of substances, from cocaine to methamphetamine. According to the one-sheet test results reviewed by Rolling Stone, both infants came back negative for cannabinoids — as well as every other drug.
“I thought this would be an open and shut case,” she says.
In March of this year, though, the New York Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) filed a neglect petition against Kennedy in Brooklyn Family Court, alleging that she used marijuana while pregnant with her twins and caring for her daughter. Kennedy was ordered to undergo a substance abuse evaluation and ongoing random drug screens, says Jessica Marcus, an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, the firm that represented Kennedy in her case. She’s also been subjected to home inspections by ACS, and asked to attend a drug treatment program as well as a parenting class.
According to the legal definition of neglect in New York State, there must be evidence of not just occasional drug use, but drug misuse. In fact, this misuse must be accompanied by, “proof that a person repeatedly misuses a drug … to the extent that it has or would ordinarily have the effect of producing in the user thereof a substantial state of stupor, unconsciousness, intoxication, hallucination, disorientation, or incompetence, or a substantial impairment of judgment, or a substantial manifestation of irrationality.”
While ACS declined to comment on Kennedy’s specific case, a spokesperson for the department says it investigates about 60,000 reports of abuse or neglect in New York City every year, including 11,000 cases that involve allegations of substance abuse.
“The law is clear that just one positive test for drugs is not enough,” Marcus says. Yet for many pregnant women or new moms, they’re finding themselves caught up in the child services system on much less.
With medical and adult-use cannabis now legal in more than half of the country,situations like Kennedy’s will become increasingly common. Cannabis use among pregnant women has increased, based on a survey of more than 300,000 women published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2017. According to that survey, Marijuana is now the “most commonly used illicit drug during pregnancy,” and from 2009 to 2016, prenatal use increased from 4.2 percent to 7.1 percent. Many women who consume cannabis continue the habit into pregnancy; some say it helps ease nausea or combat anxiety, and according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), use is only likely to continue to increase alongside legalization.
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Published: November 17, 2018