A medical cannabis activist has lost custody of her 11-year-old son after the boy reportedly defended the use of medical marijuana during a drug education class at his school.
Shona Banda, a motivational speaker and author, could also face drug and child endangerment charges after police found cannabis products and paraphernalia in her home, authorities said Monday. The 37-year-old mother of two has not yet been arrested or charged.
Last month, Banda, pulled up to her rented house in Garden City, Kansas, to find two Child Protective Services officers and a cop standing on her porch. Police reportedly told Banda she was barred from entering her home while they obtained a warrant to search for "evidence in the house, specifically marijuana."
The cops were acting on a tip from the school where Banda's 11-year-old son had been pulled from a drug education class earlier in the day and interrogated by authorities because he disagreed with what the counselor was saying about marijuana. Garden City police issued a statement Monday saying that Banda's son told school officials "his mother and other adults in his residence were avid drug users and that there was a lot of drug use occurring in his residence."
After obtaining the warrant and sifting through Banda's home, police reportedly found more than a pound of marijuana and "a lab for manufacturing cannabis oil." Police also say they encountered "drug paraphernalia and other items related to the packaging and ingestion of marijuana," that were "within easy reach" of a child. Banda has said she uses marijuana to treat her Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory digestive and bowel disorder.
Nearly a month after the March 24 incident, Banda, lost custody of her son Monday in a case that has caused disbelief and ire among fellow medical cannabis activists, and renewed calls for uniform laws and policies on medical marijuana across the United States. A judge issued a gag order on the custody case, the Associated Press reported.
Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, told VICE News that Banda's case is a "great example of what happens when there is no broader federal law governing medical marijuana use."
"Different states have wildly different approaches," Lindsey said. "In Colorado, this case wouldn't have any taken up anyone's time, yet in Kansas it's become a very big issue.
"Apart from the shock value, it's troubling that from what a child says at school can lead to authorities having enough probable cause to issue a search warrant," he added.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws on the books that allow some form of medical marijuana. Federally, pot is still illegal and classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and other drugs with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
Banda, who is separated from her husband, moved with her two children to Kansas from Colorado, where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational purposes. In an interview published on BenSwann.com, Banda questioned the legality of obtaining a search warrant by questioning her son at school
"I didn't believe you could get a warrant off of something a child says in school," she said. "Neither parent was contacted by authorities before [our son] was taken and questioned.
"I have not been charged with anything at this point," she added, "but I have a hard time believing that it's OK for them to interrogate my child without parental consent for hours."
Danielle Vitale-O'Brien, the executive director of Human Solutions International, a grassroots advocacy group that helped Banda find legal counsel, told VICE News the case is "every parent's worst nightmare."
"The police and DCS (Department of Child Services) intervention is not hurting anyone more than the children," Vitale-O'Brien said. "This is a lot more damaging to the kids than their mother using medical marijuana."
The custody hearing for Banda's son was on April 20 — a date that has become an unofficial holiday for pot smokers because the number 420 is associated with marijuana culture. Banda and her lawyer, Linda Lobmeyer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News. A Gofundme campaign set up in Banda's name has raised more than $25,000 in six days to help pay for her legal fees.
Kansas has some of the most stringent policies on pot in the country. Under the state's current marijuana laws, people found in possession of cannabis for personal use face up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both. Penalties for the cultivation, sale, or trafficking of the drug are even stiffer.
Some Kansas lawmakers have attempted to enact reforms. State Senator David Haley introduced SB9, also known as the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act, to the Kansas Legislature. The bill seeks to legalize medical marijuana for use by those suffering certain debilitating conditions, including Crohn's disease. A similar companion bill has also been introduced in the Kansas House.
"We have to get this done," Haley said at a pro-legalization rally in January. "Everyone in this Capitol knows that one day, one day, medical marijuana will be available in every one of the 50 states. We know that. The question is… will Kansas be the 24th state or the 50th?"
At a small support rally Monday outside the courthouse, Banda told supporters not to let authorities violate their civil liberties, including "freedom of speech, what you can teach your children, and what you can do with your own body."
"No one should be afraid to save their own lives and you shouldn't' be afraid to teach your children the truth, no matter where you are," she said. "I desperately miss my son every day but you should not be afraid to save your own life."
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This story was originally published April 20 and updated to reflect the outcome of Banda's custody hearing.