PORTLAND, Maine — The state’s highest court on Thursday denied the appeal of a Biddeford father who claimed a lower court awarded custody of his daughter to his ex-girlfriend because he is a medical marijuana patient.
Dustin A. Sternick asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to review a decision by Biddeford District Court Judge Michael Cantara awarding custody of Sternick’s 4-year-old daughter to the girl’s mother, Jeanette Daggett, who plans to move to Florida.
Sternick argued the court infringed on the protections afforded to him pursuant to the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act and the court “abused its discretion” in awarding Daggett custody based on Sternick’s lawful marijuana use.
In a case that has broad implications for medical marijuana users, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote the unanimous 6-0 decision rejecting Sternick’s appeal based upon his pot use and the care of his child.
“As with any medication or substance, the question of whether a parent’s ingestion of marijuana is legal is only part of the equation,” she wrote. “The more important question is whether that ingestion negatively affects, limits, or impairs a parent’s capacity to parent his or her child.”
The chief justice went onto say, “Sternick uses large amounts of medical marijuana to treat a medical condition and has a great deal of marijuana, in many forms, all over the home. Friends and relatives of Sternick often drop by the house to obtain or ingest marijuana, and the child has been exposed to marijuana. Sternick’s ability to care for a young child while under the influence of marijuana is questionable and problematic.”
Photos submitted in court show that Sternick has “voluminous amounts of marijuana-infused baked goods in the freezer and a jar full of marijuana in the kitchen cabinet — both places that were potentially accessible to the child,” the court findings state.
Hillary Lister, Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine director, said medicinal pot should be treated like any other medicine.
“Parents keep Nyquil and more potent prescription pills in their bathroom cabinets that are technically accessible to a child, but I’m not aware of that being used specifically to deny a parent custody,” she said Thursday night in an email.
The state’s grow-your-own medical marijuana law was approved by Maine voters in 1999, and a decade later voters returned to the polls to support allowing patients to legally buy from eight nonprofit, government-sanctioned clinics and the creation of marijuana cultivation centers. Protections for medical marijuana patients in child custody cases were added as part of the 2009 citizen’s initiative.
The law specifies that, “A person may not be denied parental rights and responsibilities with respect to or contact with a minor child as a result of acting in accordance with this chapter, unless the person’s conduct is contrary to the best interests of the minor child.”
“This is the first case I am aware of since that protection was put into Maine law where a court has ruled against a parent in a custody case due to their medical use of marijuana,” Lister said. “I would like to see more details of this case to determine whether the marijuana was truly a risk to the child.”
Sternick once let an ear infection suffered by his daughter fester for 18 days before seeking medical attention for her and also locked her in her room on at least one occasion, apparently so he could have privacy to use his medicinal marijuana, the findings said.
“The child was forced to urinate in her bedroom because she was locked in and could not get out to go to the bathroom,” Saufley said.
The court also found that, “although well intentioned, Sternick has not mastered the full range of skills necessary to care for a young child and has not paid serious attention to the child’s health needs.”
“The [lower] court’s factual findings did not rely on Sternick’s legal use of marijuana but rather focused on his distraction and impairment while parenting and the consequential neglect of his child’s needs,” the chief justice said.