The Impact of Marijuana Use in New York Custody Cases

February 12, 2024
Louis Sternberg

Marijuana and Custody

In recent years, the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana have sparked significant debate across the United States. While some states have embraced its use for medicinal and recreational purposes, others maintain strict regulations. Amidst this evolving landscape, questions arise regarding the role of marijuana use in New York custody cases and Family Court proceedings, particularly in custody cases. In New York, where marijuana laws have undergone notable changes, understanding the stance of NY Family Court on this issue is crucial. This essay delves into the intricacies of how New York Family Courts and divorce courts perceive and address marijuana use within the context of custody disputes.

To understand the treatment of marijuana use in custody cases, it is imperative to first explore New York’s legal framework concerning cannabis. Historically, New York has maintained stringent, and perhaps draconian, regulations against marijuana possession and distribution. However, significant legislative reforms have been enacted in recent years. The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), passed in 2021, legalized the recreational use of marijuana for individuals aged 21 and older, marking a pivotal shift in the state’s approach.

Under the MRTA, adults can legally possess, consume, and cultivate marijuana within specified limits. Moreover, the legislation includes provisions for expunging prior convictions related to marijuana possession, signaling a broader societal acceptance of its use. Despite these advancements, regulations regarding marijuana use remain nuanced, particularly concerning parental rights and responsibilities in custody proceedings.

Does Marijuana Use Affect Child Custody Cases in New York?

It is frequently asked whether marijuana use affects custody cases in New York. The answer to that question, despite changing laws and norms, remains a firm yes. Undoubtedly marijuana use, regardless of legality, a marijuana card or a prescription, remains a factor in any New York custody case. The approach utilized in analyzing marijuana use and the weight that the Court gives such marijuana use has changed in recent years, and will likely continue to evolve for years to come.

The Role of Marijuana Use in New York State Custody Cases

In New York custody cases, Family Court prioritize the best interests of the child above all else. As such, various factors, including parental behavior, substance use, and the home environment, are meticulously scrutinized to determine custody arrangements. While New York Family Courts do consider instances of substance abuse, including marijuana use, the approach is multifaceted and context-dependent.

  1. Substance Abuse Evaluation: When allegations of substance abuse, including marijuana use, surface in custody proceedings, courts may order evaluations to assess the extent and impact of such behavior on parental fitness. These evaluations, conducted by qualified professionals, aim to provide an objective analysis of the parent’s ability to provide a safe and stable environment for the child.
  2. Impact on Parental Fitness: The frequency, duration, and manner of marijuana use are critical factors in evaluating parental fitness. Occasional and responsible use, especially in compliance with state laws, may have minimal repercussions if it does not impair the parent’s ability to fulfill their parental duties. Conversely, habitual or excessive use, coupled with evidence of neglect or endangerment, can significantly sway custody determinations against the offending party.
  3. Child’s Well-being: Central to custody proceedings is the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Courts assess whether marijuana use, either by one or both parents, poses any direct or indirect harm to the child. Factors such as secondhand smoke exposure, the presence of marijuana-related paraphernalia, and the potential influence on parental decision-making are considered in this context.

How Do New York Courts Treat Marijuana Use in Custody Cases?

Generally, the trend in New York Family Court and Supreme Court custody matters is towards a more nuanced and accepting view of marijuana use.  Of course, each Judge is different, and each has broad discretion with respect to their particular cases but recreational use of marijuana is growing more accepted in the context of New York custody litigation.   Such acceptance is limited, obviously, by the nature and extent of marijuana use, as well as how such usage affects the ability to parent the child or children.  In cases where a parent is a habitual marijuana smoker and is regularly high in the presence of the child, the Court is well within its discretion to draw a negative conclusion about such a party.  On the other hand, a parent who uses recreationally, and perhaps only when they are not exercising parenting time, will be regarded differently.  To that end, analogies are often made to alcohol usage – occasional, restrained usage is generally not problematic while habitual use adversely affects one’s parenting capabilities will certainly be unacceptable. 

Medical Marijuana in New York Custody Cases

Medical Marijuana in New York custody cases is often misunderstood. Use of medical marijuana or possession of a marijuana card do not allow for unrestrained marijuana usage.  Despite common belief, the New York courts can limit even medical marijuana usage by a parent, regardless of a prescription or legal status.  Similarly, the New York Courts may also find that even the legal use of marijuana impedes a parent’s caretaking abilities. 

Marijuana Use in New York Custody Cases

Beyond legal statutes and case law, societal attitudes and evolving norms also influence how marijuana use is perceived in custody cases. As public acceptance of marijuana grows, so too may the tolerance levels within the New York State Family Court, provided its use does not compromise parental responsibilities.

With the legalization of marijuana gaining momentum nationwide, including in New York, there is a shifting societal perception regarding its use. Family courts may reflect this evolving attitude by adopting a more lenient stance towards responsible marijuana use in New York custody cases, particularly when it does not jeopardize parental fitness or the child’s welfare.

In cases where marijuana use is deemed problematic, Family Courts may opt for rehabilitative measures rather than punitive actions. Mandated counseling, substance abuse treatment programs, and parenting classes can offer parents the opportunity to address underlying issues and demonstrate their commitment to providing a stable environment for their children.

In navigating custody disputes involving marijuana use, New York Family Courts are tasked with balancing parental rights with the paramount concern for the child’s well-being. While marijuana legalization has altered the legal landscape, its impact on custody determinations remains subject to careful consideration and case-by-case evaluation. Through a nuanced approach that incorporates legal statutes, precedent, and societal perspectives, Family Court strive to uphold the best interests of the child while promoting parental accountability and rehabilitation. As attitudes towards marijuana continue to evolve, so too will the nuanced considerations of marijuana use in New York custody cases, always with an eye towards ensuring that custody determinations reflect the evolving realities of contemporary society.