The Greater Springfield YMCA is apologizing to its members after a senior staffer posted a notice threatening to call the authorities on parents who smell like marijuana.
In a letter displayed at several of the group’s Springfield-area facilities last week, Uriah Rodriguez, the YMCA’s executive director of youth development, said he had received complaints about parents and guardians “smelling of marijuana” while dropping off and picking up children.
YMCA staffers “have smelled some of you out,” the letter reads in part. “What you do on your leisure time is none of our concern. However, when your habit follows you into the facility it raises concerns about you being under the influence.”
Rodriguez went on to note that YMCA staffers are legally obligated to report concerns about possible child neglect, and asked parents to “smell check” themselves before coming to the group’s facilities.
“If you come into our facilities and you or your child smells like marijuana or any other illegal substance, we will notify DCF [the Department of Children and Families] and the local police,” he wrote.
A picture of the letter was widely shared on Facebook, where it generated a strong backlash from cannabis advocates and other critics. They noted that marijuana is legal in Massachusetts (a fact Rodriguez’s letter acknowledged before later erroneously calling it illegal) and argued adults could smell like cannabis for any number of reasons — including being near someone else who had recently consumed the drug, working in the legal marijuana industry, or because they are a patient who relies on it to treat an illness.
“Of course the YMCA should be looking for signs of impairment, but that’s not smell,” said marijuana businesswoman, advocate, and attorney Shanel Lindsay. “They’re talking about a wholesale condemnation of a person and their parenting ability based on a scent.”
“It blows my mind that people would be faced with this hysteria for voluntarily membership in a club that’s supposed to be supporting them and their families,” she added.
Under state law, legal marijuana consumption and other legal conduct related to the pot industry — such as working in a cultivation facility — cannot be the “sole or primary basis” for the state to take action against a parent, including removing children from their custody, denying visitation, or other parental rights and responsibilities.
The only exception, according to the statute, is in cases where there is “clear, convincing, and articulable evidence that a persons’s actions related to marijuana have created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child.”
The provision was included in the 2016 marijuana legalization ballot initiative approved by Massachusetts voters. In 2017, as the Legislature rewrote the law, state Representative Dave Rogers offered an amendment to reinsert the clause after an initial draft had dropped it.
In an interview, Rogers said the YMCA “is not properly aware of the law” and called on the group to better train its staff.
“The Springfield YMCA is articulating a rationale in that letter that simply doesn’t withstand common sense and the reality of how the odor of cannabis works,” Rogers said, explaining that the smell of marijuana can linger long after the drug was consumed, or be the result of another person’s consumption. “It would be unwise and really contrary to the law for a mandated reporter to file a report with DCF based on the mere odor. This section of the law is pretty clear.”
Reached for comment by phone, Rodriguez acknowledged his letter “read a little bit wrong” and said he regretted that it created the impression that the YMCA objected to marijuana consumption. But he also said it had received positive feedback from members concerned about other parents using the drug.
“We don’t want people to feel angry or discriminated against or like their choices as adults are in question at all,” Rodriguez said. “We just want to be concerned about children’s safety — there are things we’ve seen that raised huge red flags around that. . . . We did want parents to understand the gravity of some of their decisions.”
The YMCA, he added, “simply reports incidents that could be interpreted as neglect. We leave it up to state agencies to determine the rest.”
However, Rodriguez’s boss, Greater Springfield YMCA president and chief executive Dexter Johnson, took a stronger stance on the notice.
“I was fuming when I saw it,” Johnson said. “It’s really not a good representation of who we are.”
Johnson insisted the Greater Springfield YMCA had never reported a parent to the authorities based on the odor of marijuana. And in a second letter being sent to YMCA members this week, he explicitly apologized for Rodriguez’s posting, saying it “was prematurely sent out without proper evaluation and authorization.”
The YMCA understands “the smell of any substance does not indicate impairment,” Johnson’s new letter said, while reiterating that the group is “committed to preventing a parent or authorized person from picking up a child if they appear to be intoxicated.”
“Any discussions of ‘smell checks’ or other statements in that letter were not based in policy and should not have occurred,” the letter continued. “We again apologize for the confusion that the incorrect message caused.”