In 2014, Colorado voters in the United States passed a landmark law legalizing the sale and purchase of marijuana. Fast-forward to 2020 and more than 40 states have laws legalizing marijuana is some form, including several states that have made possession and recreational use legal. Canada legalized marijuana in 2018 and similar movements are underway in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations. Many parents have wondered what this means for their children’s future. As a resident of Colorado, I have been inundated with questions from concerned parents wondering not only how to broach this topic with their kids, but how to frame their responses and keep kids healthy and safe.
Kids this age may think they already know all the facts based upon information passed through peer groups, but just as with sex and alcohol, many times their information is just false.
Watching an illegal substance become legal and available for sale is an unusual occurrence in modern day society. No generation since the days of prohibition can recall this sort of transition from illegal to legal, so it’s understandable that there are fears and concerns surrounding the legalization of marijuana. Like most issues parents are forced to face, this topic, regardless of how one feels about it, can serve as a wonderful spring board for parents to discuss the reality of substance use and abuse in our culture.
First and foremost, it’s important for parents and kids to understand what the legalization of marijuana means for all of us. Rules and laws vary widely from state to state, but it’s important to note that the use of marijuana is considered a substance reserved for adults. In my state, Colorado, the law does not allow anyone under 21 to possess or consume marijuana and it is illegal for all individuals to drive while under the influence of marijuana. On the U.S. federal level, the law is still the same, meaning that marijuana is still illegal. In Canada, the legal age to use marijuana may vary by province, but is likely to be age 18 in many places. While these details may seem unimportant, they are critical facts to keep in mind when you begin the discussion with your child about marijuana use.
When you discuss any difficult topic with your child, the best place to begin is educating them with the best facts and information you can find. Beginning a computer search with your child to explore what cannabis is and its effects on the body can be a great place to start. For instance, you can uncover facts such as how the chemicals in marijuana affect the body, the developing brain of a teen or pre-teen, judgment, sleep, and overall health. Like with alcohol, you can tell your child that marijuana is a mind-altering substance that can have negative consequences for all people, but especially for teenagers who are still developing physically and emotionally. You can assign your child the “homework” of finding one or two articles that discuss, from a medical perspective, how marijuana affects the brain and what the side effects can be when used. Use these articles as a springboard for discussing marijuana together.
If you are against legalizing marijuana, having this conversation with your child may be easy. If you are in support of legalization, or are currently using marijuana yourself, it may be harder to encourage your child to see the downside of marijuana use. Keep in mind that regardless of your personal feelings about marijuana use and legalization, it is still illegal for people under 21 to use marijuana, even if it is legal in your state. This knowledge should guide you in what information you decide to impart to your child.
Next, keep in mind the age of your child when discussing marijuana. For younger children (elementary age), giving information on a need-to-know basis can be best. For older kids (middle school, high school age), helping sort fact from fiction about what marijuana is and what its effects are is useful. Your child may protest, stating that they “already know all about it”, but don’t let them off the hook that easily. Kids this age may think they already know all the facts based upon information passed through peer groups, but just as with sex and alcohol, many times their information is just false. Begin the conversation by asking, “Okay, so tell me what you know about marijuana”. Let your child talk, uninterrupted, until they tell you all they know. If some of their information is incorrect, before supplying them with the correct information, ask them the following questions:
“I’m curious how you got that idea about marijuana?”
“I hear you saying that marijuana isn’t that bad for you because John said it’s legal, but where do you think he’s getting that information?”
“I know a lot of people think that marijuana isn’t as bad for you as alcohol but there’s a bit more to it than that. I think we should talk about it.”
Your child may have some difficult questions for you about marijuana use and you should be prepared to answer them as honestly and intelligently as possible. Below are some possible comments/questions you may face and some responses you might find useful.
Explain to your child that this isn’t necessarily true, that there are a number of substances that are legal such as alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics, but also potentially dangerous or even life threatening if used or abused. Point out that safety issues for all legal substances is always a concern because you never know how a drug will affect you. We know for certain that substance use among kids is never good due to the brain still developing. You can say, “Marijuana use will affect your memory, your coordination, your ability to focus, and how you make decisions. The best way to maintain control and make decisions is to be clear-headed and not under the influence of marijuana.”
Anyone can die from using a substance, legal or not, depending on how and when it’s used. It’s true that a lot of people die each year from driving while under the influence, alcohol poisoning and from smoking cigarettes, so you should stress why you don’t want your child using alcohol or tobacco either. Point out that while the headlines may not be reporting deaths that occur directly after marijuana use, it doesn’t mean that it is a safer substance to use. Reiterate that each time someone smokes pot it affects their decision-making skills and inhibitions are reduced, which in turn can lead to poor choices that may be dangerous. The most important point to make here is that all substances will affect your child in some negative way and no one substance is necessarily safer than another.
This question may be one of the most dreaded questions to come from a child to a parent. The answer really depends on how you parent your child and what your beliefs are around disclosure. While some parents feel they simply cannot or should not be truthful to owning up to a substance using past, for those that do it’s important to follow a few guidelines. First, keep your response short and to the point without providing too many details. Saying something like, “When I was in high school someone offered me pot and because I wasn’t strong enough to say no I tried it”. You can then give some details about how it made you feel, emphasizing that in retrospect it impaired certain aspects of your life, such as your ability to think clearly, lose interest in activities, trouble with the law, etc. Try not to get bogged down in your past, but focus instead on what you learned and what you know now as an adult, as well your concern for your child and his/her future. If your child says, “Well you used it, so I should be able to too,” you can point out that just because you made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean you want your child to do the same. Frame your disclosure as you being honest in trying to help your child avoid the pitfalls of substance use, not as your giving permission to begin using.
Many parents feel that their kids won’t come to them if they’re tempted to use marijuana because they act aloof and don’t disclose much information to them in the first place. Don’t let this normal teen behavior fool you into believing that your child won’t want your help if they are confronted with the urge to use marijuana or other substances. Kids act unconcerned and are uncommunicative because they’re uncertain how to talk to parents and peers, not because they don’t value your advice. Make it very clear to your kids that you are always open to talking to them at a moment’s notice if they feel pressured or tempted to say ‘yes’ to marijuana. Let them know that if they are at a party or a friend’s house and marijuana is present, they can call you to be picked up regardless of the time or day. Also, while you may think your child knows how you feel about using marijuana, make sure to express what your expectations are around substance use while they are teen-agers. You can tell your child, “We expect you not to use any substances because we know how harmful they can be to your health. If something comes up and you need help, we’re here for you no matter what.”
In addition to stating that you will be there for them, boost your child’s confidence by going over some responses when this happens. Most teens (and adults too) rarely have the capacity to refuse a request when someone asks something of us, so we often find ourselves saying ‘yes’, when we really are scared to say ‘no’. Having a snappy comeback ready can do wonders for a child’s self-esteem and make them more confident when they need to say ‘no’. Some examples:
“Nah, I’m trying to quit” (then changing the subject).
“My parents can smell that stuff a mile away. They’d kill me, dude.”
“I’ve got so much to do tomorrow (e.g., sports event, studying, musical show). Can’t do it.”
Like so many topics that involve danger, having a one-time conversation with your child simply won’t cut it. This is a conversation you should be having starting in your child’s pre-teen years and extending all throughout high school and even college. Letting your child know that you are with them every step of the way and continuing this conversation at each stage of their development will go a long way in keeping your child substance free.
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.