Marijuana Legalization Could Have Unknown Impacts on Child Welfare

Social Welfare professor Bridget Freisthler released a study July 18 examining how marijuana use and the concentration of marijuana dispensaries in a given area contribute differently to child abuse or neglect.

Freisthler cites data from a national study showing illicit drug use was a factor in 9.5% of cases of physical abuse and about 12.5% of all neglect cases. In California, physical abuse is defined as “physical injury inflicted by other than accidental means on a child,” while child neglect is described as “the negligent failure of a person having the care or custody of a child to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision.”

As marijuana has become more available over the past two decades, due to increased legalization for either medical or recreational purposes, the lasting effects of changing marijuana legislation on social problems are still largely unknown.

This changing legislation around marijuana use has left child welfare and public health professionals without a standardized way to determine best practices regarding issues related to parenting and child abuse and neglect for parents who use marijuana for recreational or medical purposes.

“Child welfare systems rely heavily on federal guidelines, and as norms and laws around marijuana continue to change the child welfare system will have to figure out the standard upon which to evaluate cases,” Freisthler said. “That’s part of the problem: There’s currently no guidance as to what should happen in the system.”

Freisthler and her co-authors Paul J. Gruenewald and Jennifer Price Wolf, of the Prevention Research Center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, examined the relationship between this increased availability of marijuana and its correlation with abusive and neglectful parenting.

The study found that parents who reported using marijuana in the past year engaged in physical abuse three times more frequently than those who did not, while having greater densities of storefront marijuana dispensaries was related to more frequent physical abuse. Interestingly, no significant relationship was found between child neglect and marijuana use.

In other words, marijuana use and the concentration of marijuana dispensaries in a given area is related to more frequent use of physical abuse, but were not related to child neglect.

As marijuana use becomes more common due to changing norms and laws allowing for recreational use, legalization may result in higher rates of physical abuse in the general population, according to the study.

“Child abuse and neglect aren’t on the radar when it comes to the discussion about the legalization of marijuana,” Freisthler said. Overall, her study probes those “unintended consequences of policy change around marijuana.”

Freisthler and her co-authors suggest future studies to understand how child welfare workers look at risks associated with medical marijuana use and how this corresponds with other types of licit (e.g., alcohol or prescription drugs) and illicit substance use.

In addition to her research, Freisthler leads the Spatial Analysis Lab in the department of social welfare and the Child Abuse and Neglect Social Ecological Models Consortium.


This project is funded by grant number P60-AA-006282 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and grant number R01-DA032715 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.