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Pot Shots

The Custody Threat

by FRED GARDNER

Oakland, California

The threat of losing custody is a big reason why fewer women than men have availed themselves of their rights under Prop 215. Bethany Johnson’s story shows how real the threat is. It also shows how much protection a doctor’s approval can afford. Johnson didn’t get a letter of approval in the years after Prop 215 passed. She says she hadn’t wanted to ask her regular doctor, and there were no cannabis consultants in Bakersfield, and she didn’t have any surplus funds. Johnson, 37, is a divorced single mother who works part-time at Rusty’s Pizza, a small chain, as driver supervisor and customer representative. She’s also a student at Bakersfield College. School grants and aid for the kids help her make ends meet. As of last September, she had under her roof three kids of her own (9, 6 and 5), a 15-year-old foster daughter whom we’ll call Angie, and a nephew, now 20, whom she’d helped raise. And she was eight months pregnant.
This is Johnson’s account of her situation, culled from an interview on the eve of an April 20 custody hearing.

Bethany’s Story

About three years ago friends I’ve known since childhood contacted me and said they were having trouble with their daughter and CPS was going to remove her from the home. They asked me if I would go through the foster parent programs and see if I could get her. Which I did. So I went through the process with social services -fingerprints, background check, home check- and was approved for everything. The judge listed me as an "extended-family member foster parent." Angie was 13 when she came to live with me. She was smoking pot, not going to school, doing some things that endangered her. After two and a half years she was going to school full time, not smoking pot, not in destructive relationships.

Johnson had a drug-test in connection with a pre-natal check-up by her obstetrician.

He said "You were positive for THC." And I said "Yes sir, I do smoke marijuana." And he gave me that look. And I said, "Well, I need to bring some educational materials to you." And he said, "No, I’m only worried about the oxygen the baby’s not getting. You should either quit smoking cigarettes or marijuana. Just quit one." So, I said all right, I’ll quit smoking cigarettes. And he said that was fine with him.

On September 9, 2004, Johnson had an Emergency C-section at Mercy Southwest Hospital.

I had an ultrasound that day and I wasn’t producing enough amniotic fluid for the baby so they said he would be a lot better off if he was out of the womb. I’m told this happens to mothers who are overworked and overstressed…

So he was born a month early, five pounds, six ounces, but he’s fine -holding his head up at birth and by now he’s ahead of his age group… They drug-tested me the morning after I had the baby because they saw what the obstetrician noted in my chart. And they immediately called CPS. CPS showed up at the hospital and questioned me: "Do I have a stove? Blah, blah, blah?" When the social worker walked in for the first time that morning, I was breast-feeding my baby. And the first thing he said to me was, "You do realize that you’re giving your baby a joint right now." That’s exactly what he said. I was kind of shocked. So, I did stop breast feeding to talk to him. And he noted it in the charts like I was saying "Yeah, you’re right." He asked me if I had a stove and a crib and all that and I said yes yes yes yes. He asked me if I had any help and I told him that I had a 15-year-old foster daughter.

So, CPS notified Social Services’ fostering program that I was positive for THC and I had a foster child in my home. Angie was always terrified of getting pulled from me. Angie’s social worker told us both, before all this happened, that by law she couldn’t take her from me without seven days notification in writing. There was only one reason why she could be pulled without any warning and that would be if Angie was in immediate physical harm. I had Noah on Thursday, September 9th, and went home the very next day. On Tuesday morning the social worker showed up at Angie’s high school and told her "You are not going back to Bethany’s home."

And then she called me and said "Angie is not coming home, please have all her clothes packed and ready to go." And I said "why?" And she said "Because you promised not to do certain things and you’ve done them." She was talking about the pot, obviously. I said, "I think there’s been some confusion here because by law I’m covered with my doctor knowing that I smoke." The social worker went to Angie’s high school and pulled her out of the last period a little early so that Angie didn’t start to walk home like she always does. The school called her out of class and let the social worker take her. And she said, "Come on Angie, let’s go get in the car." Of course Angie got in the car. She wasn’t going to be disobedient.

After she got in the car she was told that she’s never coming back home. She was put into a licensed foster home. It was about a month before we had our hearing. Angie’s parents were there, too. They and Angie had county-appointed attorneys. By this time I had gotten my recommendation from Dr. Ellis in San Francisco, and I presented it at the hearing. Since then I’ve gotten one from Dr. Asad here in Bakersfield. My medical recommendation was never acknowledged in court on the record. The judge did say -and this is on the court transcripts- the judge said ‘Angie, I cannot let you go back into a home where there’s someone abusing drugs. You just got off marijuana, you are drug free, I can’t consciously put you back into somewhere where someone’s abusing drugs.’ He said, ‘In order for Miss Johnson to get you back, she needs to stop abusing illegal drugs and test for the Department of Human Services to prove it.’ …Judge Stubbe, in Juvenile Court in Kern County. He’s had this case the whole time. He’s very familiar with both of us. He even recognized how well Angie -how far she’s come.

But he couldn’t get it that a grown-up who used marijuana would have the authority to advise a young girl to hold off.

He said at our next court hearing if Miss Johnson’s been testing clean this whole time and things are well then you can go back. And that’s where it stands right now.

CPS tried taking my kids. They opened up a case. They had me test and all that. They couldn’t find my house undone or no food or anything, so the only thing they had was me smoking pot. I went ahead, I was peeing for them, I was so scared. But then I got my recommendation, made a copy, and the next time they knocked on my door for my pee, I gave them that. And they said, "We need you to test for us right now." I said "No, I’m not going to pee anymore." That happened within three weeks of me giving birth to Noah -after I’d gotten my recommendation from Dr. Ellis. A couple of weeks went by and the social worker called me and asked me really stupid questions like, "Who takes care of your children when you’re high?" Stuff like that. I got pretty upset with her. I said, "You know, you need to educate yourself a little better before you start asking these questions because you’re being ridiculous."

Good answer!

Then I got an official letter from her saying that they have closed the case on my children. However, if there’s any more complaints regarding me or if they see my children hurt they will have to remove them immediately and straighten it out later. So they held that threat over my head, like, "We’re watching you." The judge said, Angie, I do recognize your relationship and how strong it is and how far you’ve come by being with Miss Johnson, so I want you to have supervised visits every other week. So, I see her for two hours every other week. I’m told they never do that for foster parents. P.S. April 22

What happened at the hearing?

The report from Social Services said she was doing great with her foster parents and would stay there. I wasn’t mentioned at all. Angie asked her attorney to ask the judge for unsupervised visits with me, and the attorney did ask the judge, but she added that she did not think it was a good idea. This was a new judge, from Superior Court, and the lawyer explained the whole story to him: "She had Angie for a while and then she tested positive for THC…" And the judge looked at us and he said, "I’m granting unsupervised visits at the Department’s discretion." I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s not really a wrap-up for me because I want to know what law I’ve broken to deserve to have her taken from me? Why did this even start?

What does Angie want?

She says, "Mom, this is Kern County, they’re going to do whatever they want to do." I guess I gave her that attitude.


Canada Approves Sativex for MS

Health Canada on April 19 conditionally approved Sativex -a high-THC cannabis-sativa extract formulated to spray in the mouth- as a prescribable treatment for "symptomatic relief of neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis."

Geoffrey W. Guy, MD, chairman of G.W. Pharmaceuticals, the British firm that makes Sativex, declared, "This event marks the world’s first approval of a cannabis-derived medicine… We are now working with our Canadian marketing partner, Bayer, towards the launch of Sativex throughout Canada in late Spring."

The approval of Sativex is good news, even though the Drug Warriors will try to rationalize the ongoing prohibition of smoking "crude" marijuana by saying "an effective legal alternative is now available…" It is excellent news for the Canadian MS patients who desperately need new treatment options -especially the elderly and others who haven’t been willing or able to obtain cannabis through the existing "compassion clubs." (Some 8,000 Canadians have obtained cannabis through 10± clubs. The population is about 30 million.)

Sativex will also be used in the treatment of other conditions, as doctors see fit. Although it will be available through pharmacies, it will still be a controlled substance. Prescriptions can be for no more than one Sativex spray bottle at a time (about a month’s supply for most patients), and refills will require separate prescriptions. The cost per dose has not been announced but will probably be slightly higher than cannabis obtainable through the clubs.

A statement issued by G.W. and Bayer notes, "Health Canada has approved Sativex with conditions… This authorization reflects the promising nature of the clinical evidence which will be confirmed with further studies… "Neuropathic pain is a common symptom of MS occurring in up to 86 per cent of people with MS. Neuropathic or nerve pain can occur spontaneously or can be provoked by touch, temperature or movement. It is estimated that 50 per cent of people with MS suffer from chronic neuropathic pain. The most common descriptions of neuropathic pain are of freezing, cold or burning sensations usually of the limbs and most often of the lower extremities."

Guy decided to launch G.W. in 1998 after attending a meeting of MS patients in London and believing their accounts of pain relief and eased spasticity -information that the medical establishment dismissed as "mere anecdotal evidence." The company promptly won approval from the British Home Office to grow cannabis under highly controlled conditions and to develop extracts for use in clinical trials.

In the ensuing years Sativex was tested successfully in Britain as a treatment for neuropathic pain in MS other conditions. By 2003 Bayer HealthCare had arranged to market Sativex pending final approval. But then the British regulators began stalling, and GW stock drifted down from a high of 267 to a low of 112. On news of approval by Health Canada, GWP stock rose April 19 by 13 points to close at 134.5. It has not risen since. "Maybe because G.W. is only sold on the London stock exchange," speculates Irvin Rosenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale broker who gets his cannabis from the U.S. government in cigarette form.

Days before Canada approved Sativex, CounterPunch reported that G.W. Pharmaceuticals had hired Andrea Barthwell, MD, to lobby for approval of its cannabis-plant extracts in the U.S. Barthwell had been employed previously by the Bush Administration in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. G.W. also hired John Pastuovic, who headed the Bush-Cheney campaign in Illinois in 2000, to handle public relations in the U.S. The implication of the hires is that G.W. executives are willing to have their products pushed as alternatives to smoked marijuana. Our source said, "As a stockholder -bravo! As a citizen -what a shame!"

The CounterPunch item evoked comments from readers, including Allen St. Pierre of NORML, who seemed aghast that G.W. would hire Barthwell. Some recalled her advocacy of testing school children for drugs; others, her appearance on Montel 9/14/04, when she said "The problem with trying to bring medications to the market place through a popular vote is setting modern medicine back to the turn of the [20th] century." And, "The crude botanical has not met the test of medicine," etc., etc.

Their surprise and disapproval is misplaced. Geoffrey Guy never pretended to be a political reformer or anything but the chairman of a for-profit corporation intent on bringing helpful drugs to market.

FRED GARDNER can be reached at: fred@plebesite.com