What to Tell Your Kids About Pot, Now

With changing laws, should we change the message?

By Liza Kaufman Hogan
Originally Posted On June 25, 2014

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Liza Kaufman Hogan is content partnership manager for Next Avenue.

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My 17-year-old daughter went with friends last week to see her first R-rated movie: Neighbors. I was relieved when she forgot her ID and had to see something else.  
 
Don’t get me wrong, I like Zac Efron as much as the next mom, but it was the actor/producer Seth Rogen who gave me pause. Rogen, of such stoner hits as Pineapple Express, has been the poster man-child for casual marijuana use for years and what teen doesn’t think he is funny and cool? Naturally, Neighbors features pot-smoking in various forms, according to the movie review site Kids-in-Mind. Sure it’s just a movie, but parents are in a cultural bind these days.

Celebrities our kids look up to — like Rogen, Jon Stewart and Miley Cyrus — often make light of lighting up. States across the country are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes and recreational use in Colorado and Washington. Yet, many parents don’t want their teens using it. What’s the best way to navigate this new landscape?
 
Getting Mixed Messages
 
“The parents have always been told this is a bad thing, this is a bad thing, while close to a third of the country has some form of medical marijuana," says Jason M. Goldberg, a clinical social worker who works with adolescents in Bethesda, Md. “The biggest problem I run into is the parents have this big stigma and the kids are like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with it, look at all the medical marijuana.’”
 
One of the top researchers on substance abuse agrees. “The acceptance of medical marijuana in multiple states leads to the sense that if it’s used for medicinal purposes, then it can’t be harmful,” Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told The New York Times.
 
Where to Stand
 
“All around, people are struggling with where they stand with marijuana," says Beth Kane Davidson, director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., where she works regularly with teenagers and their families. “The key is talking about the science and talking about adolescent brain development.”
 
For those of us who grew up with the “Just Say No” campaign and commercials saying “This is your brain on drugs” with an egg frying in a pan, there are new, possibly more persuasive ways to talk to your teenage children about pot use based on a growing body of science demonstrating the negative effects of marijuana on the teen brain, Kane Davidson says. 
 
According to a 25-year, longitudinal study released last year by NIDA, participants who were dependent on marijuana before age 18 lost an average of eight IQ points between childhood and age 38. Furthermore, health experts tell us that the human brain is still developing well past age 20. 
 
"It's not the time to be putting things into (teens') brains,” Kane Davidson says. 
 
While long-term negative health effects might be persuasive for some adolescents, they're a hard sell for others.
 
“The biggest problem with teens is the future is 15 minutes,” says Ron Brogan, a spokesperson for D.A.R.E. America, the the anti-drug and violence program for schools. “You start telling them about about long-term injury caused by marijuana, and it doesn’t necessarily resonate.”  
 
It’s the Law
 
If brain damage doesn’t get your kid's attention, you might remind him or her of the consequences if they are caught smoking pot.

Although marijuana may be legal in some states and decriminalized in others, it's still illegal in all states for anyone under 21 and at any age at the federal level. A citation or arrest can cause a student to lose her spot on a sports team, forfeit a college scholarship or require entering an outpatient drug rehab program where she'll lose a good deal of autonomy, according to Kane Davidson, who runs such programs.
 
If that approach doesn’t resonate, you can try the more direct tactic Atlanta mom Christy Oglesby uses. “The law doesn't matter. Don't use any substance that affects your ability to make wise decisions,” she has told her 14-year-old son. “Do nothing that alters the clarity of your thought process and ability to make decisions.”
 
“Hey, Dad, Did You Ever Smoke Weed?”
 
Should parents who altered the clarity of their thought processes with marijuana in high school or college come clean if asked by their children whether they ever tried it?
 
While Goldberg doesn't think parents should share every detail, he believes owning up to past use could be a positive. It allows the parent to say: “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like" and the kid to say, "Hey, I might not be able to pull wool over their eyes.”
 
And this conversation might be an opportunity to tell your child that pot is a lot stronger than when boomers and Gen X parents tried it. According to NIDA, concentrations of THC, the chemical in marijuana which provides the ‘high,” averaged 14.5 percent in 2012, compared to around 4 percent in the 1980s. 
 
Some parents, however, don't think it’s a good idea to share their past.

“Kids copy what their parents say, they mimic their behaviors, share religious values, so what would stop them from trying what we've tried?" notes Susan Linker, the mother of a high school junior in Chicago. 
 
Keep the Conversation Going
 
In Goldberg’s view, the discussion about marijuana is not that different from what we hope to teach our kids about alcohol — how to be responsible adults when the time comes.
 
That's a conversation we need to keep having with our teenagers, says Kane Davidson.

“Kids need their parents to parent and not be pals, and parents need to be more present at a time when we think of our kids moving toward independence,” she says. “We have to be their guard rails.”