Ronnie Naulls never saw it coming. The church-going businessman, husband, and father of three young girls knew he was taking a risk when he opened a medical marijuana dispensary in Corona, a suburban community in the high desert of Riverside County east of Los Angeles.
Although he had played by the rules, obeyed all state laws, and successfully battled the city in court to stay open, Naulls knew there was a chance of trouble with law enforcement. He knew there was a chance of the federal DEA coming down on him, as it has done with at least 40 other dispensaries this year alone.
But that wasn't enough for the DEA. The raiders also called Child Protective Services (CPS). With Naulls already hustled off to jail, his wife sitting handcuffed in a police car, and his home in a shambles after being tossed by the DEA, CPS social workers said his three children were endangered and seized them. Naulls and his wife were also charged with felony child endangerment.
The three girls -- ages 1, 3, and 5 -- were held in protective foster care, with Naulls and his wife only able to see them during a one-hour supervised visit a week. "My oldest girl thought she was being punished for doing something wrong," he said. "When we went to visit her, she said, 'Daddy, we're ready to come home now, we promise to be good.'"
But the Naulls couldn't tell their children the only thing that would comfort them -- that they would be coming home soon. That would violate CPS regulations because it might not be true. In fact, it took five weeks of hearings and heartache before a family court judge decided the children would indeed be safe with their parents. But the child endangerment charges still stand.
"I was numb, totally flabbergasted, outraged, and left speechless," said Naulls. "They told my wife we were endangering the kids because of the medicine we had in the house, but we only had some in a refrigerator in the garage that has an alarmed door and my own medicine in a locked container in my office -- the DEA broke that lock. Would they treat us that way if it had been prescription Xanax?"
The DEA was not apologetic about its handiwork. A DEA spokesman confirmed that its people had called CPS. "Any time we do an operation where children are present, we have a responsibility to call CPS," said Special Agent Jose Martinez. "But we don't make the decision about whether the children are endangered."
While it would not discuss particulars of the Naulls case, the Children's Services Division of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, of which CPS is a part, denies that medical marijuana use or presence is a reason for removal of children on the filing of endangerment charges.
"Drugs alone does not constitute a reason for removal," said Susan Lowe, director of the division. "More relevantly, the issue of medical marijuana does not constitute a reason for us to remove children. There have to be other issues present that indicate neglect or abuse."
That claim brought a sharp response from Oakland-based attorney James Anthony, who represented Naulls on land use issues related to his dispensary. While he supported Lowe's statement of the Riverside County CPS policy, he said it didn’t reflect reality in the county.
"As a medical cannabis activist attorney and friend of the Naulls family, I would say that is very good news and seems to reflect a change of position -- or a position held at the top that has not filtered down yet to the working staff of CPS," said Anthony. "Riverside County CPS has an alarming reputation as quick to take children out of medical cannabis households and to press endangerment charges," he said. "The position the director laid out is exactly as it should be: medical cannabis is no more relevant to the best interests of children than any prescription drug -- the California Supreme Court said as much when it said that medical cannabis is as legal as any prescription drug," Anthony pointed out.
"In the Naulls case," Anthony continued, "what does the agency allege is the 'neglect or abuse'? Two loving parents? A nice middle-class home? Parents who care enough to avail themselves of legal, harmless, medicine to keep themselves well? The only abuse I'm aware of at the Naulls home was the abuse done by federal law enforcement when they invaded that home without warning and heavily armed -- terrorizing those poor children for no reason at all. The DEA could have called me and I would have advised my client to turn himself in -- it's not like he was hiding. If CPS wants to charge someone with child abuse, they should start with the DEA. Under their own standards as described here, there is no basis to prosecute Anisha Naulls for anything."
If there is any child abuse involved, it is coming from the state, agreed Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a group concerned with abuses of the child protection system.
"What has been done to these children is government-sanctioned child abuse," Wexler said. "Whether one believes what Mr. Naulls did is legal or not, there is not a shred of evidence that running a medical marijuana co-op harms children -- and overwhelming evidence that foster care does children enormous harm," he said.
"The act of removal from everyone loving and familiar can traumatize a child for life, and the younger the child, the greater the likelihood for such harm," Wexler continued. "For a young enough child it's an experience akin to a kidnapping. Children often believe that they have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished. That's reflected in one child telling her father 'Daddy, we're ready to come home now; we promise to be good.' All that harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But several studies suggest that at least one in three foster children is abused in foster care. So these children have gone from a situation where they clearly were not abused, into foster care, where the odds are at least one in three that they will be abused," Wexler said.
"I warn all my dispensary clients that the federal government will try to capture and imprison you, but it hadn't occurred to me that the government will also kidnap your children," said Anthony. "It's just unbelievable, barbaric."
Anthony also works with Green Aid, a group originally set up to support Ed Rosenthal's legal battles with the feds in Northern California. Green Aid has set up a Naulls Family Defense Fund to aid the now impoverished family in its effort to stay together and out of prison.
Sadly, the Naulls are not alone. Veteran activists say child removals by CPS or the loss of custody battles in California family courts because of medical marijuana are not uncommon and becoming more frequent.
"Medical cannabis patients and providers getting their kids taken away is, unfortunately not new," said Angel McLary Raich, who won the first medical cannabis custody case in California in the wake of Proposition 215. Despite a variety of debilitating and life-threatening conditions, Raich and her patient outreach group Angel Wings, have since become a resource for other medical cannabis community members facing either the child protection bureaucracy or the vicissitudes of family court in child custody cases.
Raich, who is probably best known as the plaintiff in the Supreme Court's medical marijuana case, Raich v. Ashcroft, said involvement with medical cannabis as a factor in either child custody or abuse or endangerment cases is a recurring problem. "I know of many cases where the kids have been taken away permanently, others where they have to have supervised visitation."
"We think this kind of thing is horrible," said Noah Mamber, legal coordinator for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the medical marijuana defense group. "Even as we are making progress on the criminal front, with the cops becoming better educated, as well as other areas like employment and housing, as the legal intake person for ASA I find myself taking many, many calls where medical cannabis is an issue for CPS or in family court. I've probably had 30 or 40 in the last couple of years, and those are just the people who call us."
That means there is work to do, activists said. Some are undertaking an educational process with the family courts and CPS, while others are looking to the legislature for relief.
"No one seems to understand medical marijuana in this context," said Mamber. "There seems to be an unfortunate bias in CPS workers and family court judges. There are cases where there are no other issues except medical marijuana, and they will force them to quit taking their medicine if they want their kids. It is absolutely true that there are cases where patient parents are being treated unfairly by CPS and the family court system."
"An educational process for the courts and agencies is definitely needed," said Anthony. "They can act with the best of intentions, yet wield an incredibly devastating impact on families because of their lack of knowledge."
Raich pioneered such educational work in Alameda County. The work continues, she said. "I'm working on training law enforcement and dealing with CPS and family court," she said. "That's my real passion. I cannot tolerate watching other people lose their kids over this stuff. It is just so wrong."
If anyone is having problems with CPS or family court over medical marijuana issues, call her, Raich said. Her number is in the Oakland phone book and contact information is on her web site.
ASA is working to even the playing field for patients through legislative action, Mamber said. "As it is now, family courts and CPS don't seem to be aware of Prop. 215 and Senate Bill 420, so we need legislation to guide them. We have drafted a bill that would amend the child protection law so that the medical marijuana status of a parent cannot be the sole basis for removal of a child," he explained. "They need to quit forcing patients to stop taking their medicine. This measure won't stop CPS from doing its job, but it will stop it from persecuting medical marijuana patients."
All that is going to take time. In the meantime, said Raich, medical marijuana patients or providers with children need to play it extremely safe. "Make sure you're being a good parent," she said. "Make sure your cannabis is out of reach of the children, make sure your house is clean, there are no hazards, always plenty of milk and formula on hand. Don't grow in the house, don't dry in the house, don't have more pot than food in the refrigerator. Take a parenting class. Know what you need to do. And if the cops come to the door, don't let them in without a warrant."
As for Ronald Naulls, he's still a bit shell-shocked. "I'm a businessman and a network engineer. I don't have a criminal record and I don't want to go to jail. I don't want to have to fight the state to keep my daughters. I'm praying for God's love, and I ask everyone to pray for me. But this is more than just about me, this is a fight for the patients and for my family."