Arizona mother put on child abuse registry for using medical marijuana finally wins three-year court battle

An Arizona mother who was put on a child abuse registry for using medical marijuana has won a three-year court battle.

Lindsey Ridgell was told in 2019 that she was a negligent parent because of her medical marijuana use during her pregnancy, despite the fact that she had been described the drug for 10 years, Jezebel reported.

During her pregnancy, she struggled with hyperemesis gravidarum, which leads to “extreme, persistent nausea and vomiting,” the Cleveland Clinic states on its site.

Medical marijuana helped her deal with the condition. The state of Arizona legalized medical marijuana over 10 years ago and recreational use was made legal in 2021.

But within a month of the birth of her child, the expectant mother was let go from her post at the state’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) and put on the child abuse registry.

The child had stopped breathing for a short period of time but was resuscitated. He then tested positive for marijuana.

Ms Ridgell’s son left the hospital a week after his birth and doctors said that he shouldn’t be experiencing “lasting symptoms,” the mother told Jezebel.

But Ms Ridgell was still put on the child abuse blacklist by Arizona’s child welfare system, prompting several court battles.

“I was on edge,” she told the outlet. “Every couple of months, every year, I would get bad news, but we would appeal.”

The case got all the way to the state Supreme Court, which rejected DCS’s call for a review of the case, allowing a lower court’s ruling in Ms Ridgell’s favour to stand.

Her lawyer, Julie Gunnigle, told Jezebel that “she’s been terrorized by this agency for four years. It was a constant threat. Her income has been cut drastically”.

“She’s elated. It’s going to mean so much for her family,” she added.

Ms Gunnigle serves as the legal director of Arizona NORML, which works to “move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high-quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable”.

Ms Ridgell told Jezebel that she didn’t tell anyone at work that she was using the drug and that she tried to stop using medical marijuana “a few times, but I was never able to. I would get really sick”.

“I was nauseous all the time. I could barely hold anything down,” she added.

In November 2018, she received her hyperemesis gravidarum diagnosis, when she was hospitalised for the first of two times.

“Ridgell renewed her medical marijuana card in late December 2018, telling the certifying doctor that she was pregnant,” an appellate court’s opinion states. “The certifying doctor, Kim Muhammad, identified ‘chronic nausea [due to] slow gastric emptying’ as Ridgell’s ‘debilitating medical condition’.”

The state child abuse reporting statute required that Dr Muhammad warn Ms Ridgell “that marijuana use during pregnancy might risk being reported to the Department during pregnancy or at the birth by persons who are required to report”.

The opinion states that the physician said that “in [my] professional opinion [I] believe that the qualifying patient is likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefit from ... the use of marijuana to treat or alleviate the qualifying patient’s debilitating medical condition”.

Ms Ridgell was working with DCS during her pregnancy, assisting families struggling to keep their children at home.

“I wanted to be a good person in a system that I heard so [many] bad things about,” Ms Ridgell told Jezebel.

After she gave birth, DCS required her to be the subject of those same in-home services.

Advocacy organisation Pregnancy Justice argues that there’s “no scientific basis” that foetuses can be harmed by marijuana while the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says those who are pregnant shouldn’t use the drug.

The appellate court wrote that according to the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, a “qualifying patient” is “presumed to be ‘engaged in the medical use of marijuana’ if the patient possesses a medical marijuana registration card and an allowable amount of marijuana”.

“Whether any of Ridgell’s other doctors knew she was taking medical marijuana for her chronic nausea — and any dispute about that fact — is irrelevant,” the court added.

A different court ruling means that Ms Ridgell could stay on the child abuse blacklist used for background investigations in her field, forcing her to make a career change.

With a new job in a new city, she told Jezebel that the scariest thing is the possibility of getting pregnant again.

“Along with the terrible experience of being pregnant, I don’t want another lawsuit,” she said.

The Independent has reached out to the Arizona DCS for comment.