Emily Roberts says her body hurts all the time.
Sometimes, itâ€™s a radiating pain that shoots along the nerves in her leg. Other times, it feels like someone is stabbing her shoulder blade, with the pain spreading from that point over the right side of her body.
â€śIâ€™m being forced to choose between my pain and my kids. This isnâ€™t justice â€” itâ€™s cruel,â€ť Roberts tearfully explained during a Tuesday news conference.
Cannabis advocates say the situation puts a spotlight on the lack of understanding about Utahâ€™s emerging medical marijuana program, even among government officials and judges. And itâ€™s putting legal marijuana patients in fear of everything from criminal prosecution to losing their job or their children, advocates say.
DJ Schanz, chairman of the Utah Cannabis Association, said the system particularly seems to prey on people who donâ€™t have the money to defend themselves in court.
â€śIt really puts them in a meat grinder,â€ť Schanz said during the news conference at the Utah Capitol.
â€śIt has become very clear that we have people in our state who have not taken the time to really let go of their own biases and educate themselves on the bill that we passed in the Legislature,â€ť said Utah Rep. Christine Watkins, a Price Republican who serves on the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel.
But judges are doing the best they can under the existing law, according to a courts spokesman.
â€śThe Legislature, much like the courts, has discovered a number of unanswered questions regarding this law,â€ť Geoffrey Fattah, Utah State Courts spokesman, said in a prepared statement. â€śWe will be working with the Legislature during Mondayâ€™s special session to address these questions and hopefully provide guidance to our judges.â€ť
Fattah could not speak specifically about Robertsâ€™ case, which is in juvenile court and closed to the public.
Roberts said her familyâ€™s troubles began last summer when they unexpectedly lost their home and spent several weeks bouncing between hotels and motels, short-term rentals and friendsâ€™ houses. On a few occasions, they were forced to sleep in their car.
The housing instability combined with some arguments between Roberts and her husband prompted the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to get involved, and the agency ended up temporarily removing the coupleâ€™s two daughters, aged 4 and 2.
While the family was reunited after about a week, the judge supervising the case ordered Roberts and her husband to undergo random drug testing, which she describes as an inconvenient and embarrassing ordeal. Sheâ€™s faced the testing since last fall, sometimes multiple times in a week.
â€śWe are humiliated every time we do a drug test because weâ€™re required to pretty much get naked in front of strangers and urinate,â€ť she said.
Roberts said sheâ€™s tested positive for THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, because of her participation in a state-sponsored CBD study. While these two chemicals are distinct cannabis components, marijuana advocate Connor Boyack said CBD oil can contain trace amounts of THC, which explains why it showed up in Robertsâ€™ test results.
Roberts has suffered from debilitating pain for the past two decades, since a car accident that left her with extensive nerve damage. A few years ago, she tried cannabis while visiting a friend who lived in a state where the substance was legal and discovered it offered significant relief.
But neither Robertsâ€™ letter of recommendation nor her participation in a legal, state-sanctioned CBD study has carried much weight with the juvenile court judge involved in her familyâ€™s case, she said.
Cannabis advocates point to excerpts from the familyâ€™s court hearings as evidence that their judge isnâ€™t aware medical marijuana contains THC and is mistaken about parts of Utahâ€™s new medical cannabis law. An audio clip from the hearing also shows the judge warned her DCFS might decide to remove her children if she keeps testing positive for THC.
Roberts said her familyâ€™s living situation has stabilized, and theyâ€™ve been attending court-appointed counseling. The drug tests are the only reason the case hasnâ€™t been closed, she said. So instead of taking CBD, sheâ€™s been living with pain that puts everyday activities â€” doing the dishes or taking her daughters to Thanksgiving Point â€” out of her reach.
â€ś[The judge] is denying me my legal ability to use this medicine and to be a better mom,â€ť Roberts said.
Diane Moore, head of the stateâ€™s division of child and family services, couldnâ€™t comment on the specifics of the Robertsâ€™ case but emphasized that her agency does not police parents for their substance use unless thereâ€™s evidence itâ€™s affecting a child.
â€śFor us to be involved with a family, there has to be evidence that thereâ€™s harm or the threat of harm to the child that exists,â€ť she said. â€śThe substance on its own is not generally enough for us to get involved with a family.â€ť
That goes for illegal substances, as well as legal ones such as prescription pills and alcohol, she said. DCFS officials want to keep children with their parents whenever possible and work to support families to that end, Moore said.
However, both DCFS and the judiciary are continuing to learn about the stateâ€™s new cannabis law.
Moore said officials from her agency are meeting later this month with Boyack and medical and law enforcement representatives to discuss the program. This week, the stateâ€™s judges are meeting in an annual conference with a training session dedicated to medical marijuana, Fattah said.