Marijuana Use and Child Physical Abuse: Is There an Association?

As marijuana use becomes more prevalent, some are concerned about how parents' marijuana use affects their children.

Laws allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes have been enacted in 23 states and the District of Columbia,1 and 4 states have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana. Although the sale and use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law, polls show most Americans now favor legalizing marijuana.2,3 As marijuana use becomes more prevalent, some are concerned about how parents’ marijuana use affects their chilDr.en.

Bridget Freisthler, PhD, a professor with the University of California-Los Angeles Department of Social Welfare, and colleagues from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Oakland, California, recently reported findings from a study that assessed the relationship between current marijuana use, the local availability of marijuana via dispensaries, and abusive or neglectful parenting.4

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“Essentially, we found that parents who used marijuana in the past year also used physical abuse more often in the past year. We expected to see that parents who used marijuana would be more likely to neglect their chilDr.en and were surprised when we did not find that,” Dr. Freisthler said.

The researchers also found “parents living in cities with higher densities of dispensaries used physical abuse more frequently.”

The study began in 2009 with an automated telephone survey of approximately 3000 parents or guardians from 50 mid-sized cities in California.4 Respondents were asked about their marijuana and alcohol use and how often they committed certain acts of neglect or physical abuse against a single child 12 years old or younger who lived in the home (Table).

Table. Instruments and Measures Used to Evaluate Child Physical Abuse or Neglect


Instrument/Response Options

Examples of Measures

Physical abuse

Conflict Tactics Scale-Parent-child Version

· Never

· 1-5 times

· 6-10 times

· >10 times

· Threw or knocked a child down

· Hit a child with your fist

· Kicked a child hard

· Committed actions a child welfare worker would likely substantiate as physical abuse


Multidimensional Neglectful Behavior Scale

· Never

· Sometimes

· Often

· Always

Examples of supervisory neglect

· Child <5 years: could hear the child cry from another room

· Child 5-9 years: did not know where the child was playing outdoors

· Child 10-12 years: did not know where the child was going after school

Examples of physical neglect

· Did not have enough food in the house for the child

· Did not keep the house warm enough in cold weather

· Was unable to take the child to the doctor when he/she was really sick


They were also surveyed about psychosocial factors that might contribute to abusive or neglectful behavior, such as anxiety, depression, or impulsivity; and about demographic characteristics, including age, income, education, race, and marital status. The researchers used Internet advertisements, official city lists, and trade publications to compile a list of dispensaries for each city. Dr. Freisthler said respondents were not asked whether they used marijuana recreationally or to treat a medical condition.