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Drug-endangered child bills may have been doomed by "optics," political deals, senator says

Drug-endangered child bills may have been doomed by "optics," political deals, senator says

Earlier this month, Senator Linda Newell, sponsor of two controversial bills intended to clarify the definition of a drug-endangered child, refuted claims that the measures could criminalize any parent who legally smoked marijuana. Nonetheless, the measures failed this week after a tricky political maneuver. They actually passed before a reversal in fortune -- and were nearly revived yesterday prior to perishing for good.

Newell believes the bills were mischaracterized by critics and undermined by politics that pitted kids' safety against the interests of the pot industry.

"Sometimes the optics can hijack a bill," Newell says, "and sometimes people who agree with the policy vote with the politics."

State Senator Linda Newell.
State Senator Linda Newell.

As we've reported, the numerically consecutive nature of the bills, known as SB 14-177 and SB 14-178, was appropriate, given that they were a matched set. The former set out to define the term "drug-endangered child" in the children's code governing actions by state social services, while the latter did likewise in the criminal code that sets parameters for law enforcement.

We've included the complete documents below, but here's the main definition:

"DRUG-ENDANGERED CHILD" MEANS ANY CHILD IN A CASE IN WHICH ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SITUATIONS OCCUR:

(a) IN THE PRESENCE OF A CHILD, OR ON THE PREMISES WHERE A CHILD IS FOUND OR RESIDES, A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE...IS MANUFACTURED, DISTRIBUTED, CULTIVATED, PRODUCED, POSSESSED, OR USED, OR ATTEMPTED TO BE MANUFACTURED, DISTRIBUTED, CULTIVATED, PRODUCED, POSSESSED, OR USED, AND WHEN SUCH ACTIVITY THREATENS THE HEALTH OR WELFARE OF THE CHILD; OR

(b) A CHILD'S HEALTH OR WELFARE IS THREATENED BY UNRESTRICTED ACCESS TO EITHER A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE OR ANY LEGAL SUBSTANCE CAPABLE OF CAUSING... A MENTAL OR PHYSICAL IMPAIRMENT; OR

(c) A CHILD'S HEALTH OR WELFARE IS THREATENED BY THE IMPAIRMENT OF THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CARE OF THE CHILD...IF THE IMPAIRMENT IS DUE TO THE USE OF EITHER A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE...OR ANY LEGAL SUBSTANCE CAPABLE OF CAUSING A MENTAL OR PHYSICAL IMPAIRMENT; OR

(d) A CHILD TESTS POSITIVE AT BIRTH FOR EITHER A SCHEDULE I CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE...OR A SCHEDULE II CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE...UNLESS THE CHILD TESTS POSITIVE FOR A SCHEDULE II CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE AS A RESULT OF THE MOTHER'S LAWFUL INTAKE OF SUCH SUBSTANCE AS PRESCRIBED.

Critics complained that the phrases pertaining to threats against a child's welfare were so sweeping that they would make it impossible for any parent to engage in legal cannabis use, home grows or the like without violating the laws. Newell argued otherwise, pointing out that the language grew out of recommendations from a state substance-abuse task force and maintaining that the new material actually added more protections for parents than the text of current statutes.

Nonetheless. opposition against the measures remained strong -- so Newell tinkered with the bills in ways intended to soothe concerns. Among the amendments she approved was one stating that all remedies must be exhausted before law enforcement could step in -- and the word "only" was added to a phrase involving the "threat of injury, safety and life of the child." On top of that, Newell says marijuana was specifically listed among legal substances, "to make sure people understood that everything was aligned with Amendment 20 and Amendment 64," the main marijuana measures enshrined in the Colorado constitution.

These tweaks gained the measures more support, and Newell says "the senate passed both of them. But then, at the end, the minority leader [Republican Senator Bill Cadman] called for a roll-call vote -- and at the same time, he also gave a signal to his people on his side of the aisle to lock down and vote with him. And that's what happened -- how you can have a bill pass and then have it taken away."

Continue for more of our interview with Senator Linda Newell about the failure of two drug-endangered child bills.   Even then, the bills weren't officially dead. Yesterday, Newell reveals, "we had one of the people who voted against 178, the criminal code one, look at all the amendments we put on and say, 'Now I see the guard rails to protect people.' And since you can reconsider your vote in the senate up to two days afterward, he came in and did that.

Senator Linda Newell in a photo from her campaign website.
Senator Linda Newell in a photo from her campaign website.

"I counted all the votes, and we had enough. But then one of the people who had committed to me on our side of the aisle switched the vote. I don't know why, but after that, we didn't have the votes again."

Pinning down the reasons for these twists and turns isn't easy, Newell concedes: "There are so many components to getting a bill through, let alone two bills." She believes the problems in this case "started with the social media and the frame of fear that was put on the conversation. Then it went to the formal media, and once I got to talk and explain the bills, we got some favorable exposure from them. But one of the things that is so true under the dome is that sometimes we're talking policy and sometimes we're talking politics -- and sometimes we're talking neither or both."

Regarding the political equation, Newell has heard rumblings that assorted marijuana-industry lobbyists may have "made some promises to people" if they voted down the bills. She adds that "in my district, the thought is, we need to make sure we're protecting the children, but in other districts, there are a lot of marijuana activists...."

Newell stresses "we took an oath to protect the constitution, and I want to make sure we're very clear with everybody that we want to make sure people's constitutional rights are protected. But we also want to make sure that no child is harmed due to any kind of activity that goes around drugs, whatever that drug is." Indeed, she reiterates that the bills were focused on prescription-drug abuse at least as much if not more than marijuana.

With that in mind, Newell plans to bring back versions of the measures in a future legislative session. When she does so, she says, "I really want to work with members of the marijuana industry, so I can reassure them that this will actually make things better for them. I want to look out for the kids, of course, but I'm also looking out for them."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Politics archive circa April 8: "Drug-endangered child bills won't automatically criminalize pot-using parents, senator says."


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