EDITORIAL: Family Court must evolve on medical marijuana use

Nevadans legalized medical marijuana more than a decade ago. Last year, the Legislature finally caught up to the constitutional amendment by authorizing dispensaries to sell the drug to patients. Soon more sick Nevadans will be buying and using medical marijuana — fully within the law.

Government must catch up to this reality. Including Family Court.

As reported Sunday by the Review-Journal’s Carri Geer Thevenot, Keith Patton is seeking broader parental rights over his 4-year-old son — preferably a custody arrangement that gives him unsupervised time equal to that enjoyed by the boy’s mother, Erin Bersell. But Mr. Patton, 33, uses marijuana regularly to treat migraines and muscle spasms caused by a skull fracture he suffered in 2003. Mr. Patton claims that his medical marijuana use has led Family Court Judge Gayle Nathan to gradually strip him of his parental rights. “It’s never been proven that I am unfit,” Mr. Patton told Ms. Geer Thevenot.

Stacy Rocheleau, an attorney with Right Lawyers who primarily practices family law, said that in Nevada, there’s more to any custody case than a single assertion. “The standard is what’s in the best interest of the child,” Ms. Rocheleau said.

At a December 2012 hearing, a test indicating Mr. Patton’s marijuana use was presented to the court. Judge Nathan determined the father would be limited to supervised visits at his mother’s home (Mr. Patton lives with his mother, who acted as the supervisor) for four hours each Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The judge also ordered Mr. Patton not to use marijuana in his son’s presence, not to consume the drug within 48 hours of visitation, and to never drive the child anywhere without a further order from the court.

Mr. Patton subsequently has tested positive multiple times. After questions were raised about his mother’s suitability as a supervisor, Mr. Patton’s visits were limited to Donna’s House, a facility where court-ordered supervised visits can be held. But Mr. Patton said he ended those visits about two months ago because his son cried every time they met there.

Perhaps Mr. Patton isn’t fit for unsupervised visits, his legal use of medical marijuana notwithstanding. “This guy’s not the right spokesman for this cause,” said Ed Kainen, the attorney for Ms. Bersell.

But this is bound to come before Family Court again. And again. Mr. Patton’s situation clearly demonstrates that, whether it’s achieved through legislation, consistent rulings from judges or through a state Supreme Court ruling, Family Court needs to pay attention to what’s going on in this state and nationwide with regard to marijuana. It’s reasonable for the mother and the court to not want Mr. Patton smoking marijuana in front of his child. But if Mr. Patton is complying with those orders and with state law, it would appear he’s being wrongly punished. It’s time to move past the idea that a sick dad who smokes marijuana is not fit to take care of his child. People who use all kinds of prescription narcotics are not at risk of being stripped of parental rights. Neither are people who drink a few beers.

Medical marijuana is legal in Nevada. Last week, the state OK’d regulations for the operation of 66 dispensaries statewide, including 40 in Clark County. And full legalization of marijuana is inevitable — it’s going to come. Just look at the tax dollars legal marijuana is already generating in Colorado. Judges need to come to grips with this — soon.