The changing laws governing both medical and recreational marijuana use across the country have complicated the talks parents have with young people about drug use.
Medical marijuana, which in most cases is an oil derived from the marijuana plant that is mostly stripped of THC, the compound that makes users feel high, is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Legal sales of recreational marijuana began Jan. 1 in Colorado and are expected to begin this year in Washington state.
Are young people even aware of the changing laws?
“Absolutely they are,” said Sally Yageric, parent program coordinator for the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. In the past, she said, “Say something new was developed out on the west coast. It would be months before it would get here. Now we have the Internet, and things move very fast.”
The changing laws “will come up” in group sessions, said Joanne Barber, a program supervisor for Mid-Erie Counseling Services, a not-for-profit group that provides mental health and substance abuse counseling for adults, adolescents and children at several sites in Western New York and Rochester,
“It becomes a big topic among teenagers. But we are trained to redirect them. We don’t want to spend time on those concerns, we ask them to take that to their individual counselors. But it doesn’t come up as much as I thought it would.”
Adolescents who may already be using marijuana recreationally are using the more liberal laws to argue that use of the drug is fine, said Yageric. “Even in our own state there is talk about medical marijuana,” she said. “When adults talk like that, the message they are giving to young people is, ‘How bad can it be if they want to make a medicine out of it?’ so they don’t see the harm.”
Yageric says recent studies have shown that “the perception of harm is going down, the kids do not see the harm in using marijuana because we are using it for medicine.”
Still, most parents want their children to avoid all drugs, including marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.
“The teenage brain is still developing, until at least the age of 25. That’s what our research is showing us now,” said Cleveland Hill school psychologist Gloria Valley. “Because of that, marijuana does affect their cognition more than it would an adult. There is some research out there showing that the effects of long-term marijuana use includes lower IQs.”
To influence young people to avoid marijuana, parents cannot avoid the topic, Barber said. And before starting the conversation, they must educate themselves so they know what they are talking about.
It’s important not to exaggerate the effects of marijuana use, Barber said, in an attempt to make a point.
“You don’t want to try to make it this horrible, horrible thing, telling a teenager ‘You’re going to die,’ or ‘Once you rewire your brain it’s never going to go back.’ That’s not going to get them to change. But if you listen to your child, try to understand where they are coming from, not agree but understand, say ‘Let’s sit down and talk about this.’ Parents need to be educated themselves before they do that.”
For example, marijuana prepared for medical use “isn’t the plant that they are smoking, and they don’t know that,” said Barber.
A particularly thorny issue arises when young people guess or know that the parent who is delivering the anti-drug message probably used drugs in his or her own adolescence. How do you talk your kids out of experimenting with drugs when you did it yourself?
“Personally I would say, we know so much more today than we did when I was growing up, and there are a lot of things we do differently,” said Yageric. “There are laws that are in place to protect us, and the more we know about something, the better educated we are. We never wore seat belts, which save lives now. Everybody thought it was OK to smoke tobacco back then, now we know the damage that it does. Well, marijuana does even more damage. I would say things like that to them.”
Yageric says there is no benefit in having a parent share stories of past drug use with an adolescent. “Parents can evade the whole issue. Why tell war stories?” she said. “The young person will come away with, ‘Oh, yeah, they did it and they are OK, so they can’t really rag on me if I do it.’ Sharing your own story doesn’t do any good.”
Barber said if an adolescent confronts a parent about the parent’s past, “The most important thing is to acknowledge it, to say, ‘that’s true,’ but then put the focus back on the child. You don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on it, dodge it, or go into a whole lot of detail, You should say, yes, I did, and list the negative consequences you experienced.”
Sometimes the issue isn’t a parent’s past drug or alcohol use, but current use, Barber said. “We do sessions where we sit down with the parent and the child, and sometimes the parent will be continuing to drink or smoke weed, but say to the child, ‘I’m not in recovery, you are.’ There’s not much credibility there.
“That’s where we come in, we tell the parent, ‘You are in recovery because your child is in recovery. You have to change some of your ways, because you’re a role model. In order for the child to change their ways, you are going to have to change your ways as well.’ If the child says to the parent, ‘You’re asking me not to smoke marijuana, but every night when you come home from work you have a couple of beers,’ we are going to ask the parent not to do that.”