Now that New York and New Jersey have greenlighted recreational marijuana – with Pennsylvania considering it – the billboards, shop signs, and skunky smell will be here soon. So will the questions from the back seat.
How do we talk to our kids in an honest, age-appropriate, non-weird way about a plant that we, their parents, have always known as taboo?
“Talk, talk, talk, and start early,” says Dr. Shannon Caspersen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and addiction specialist. Young kids, she said, like rules: people are not allowed to drink or use marijuana until they’re 21.
That might make less sense to a 16-year-old who sees her friends drinking. “So the conversation changes,” said Caspersen, perhaps to how to decline a drink or a hit at a party. “If your child is already using, you ask them about their use in a nonjudgmental way, and offer help in reducing or stopping their use.”
There’s no standard script when it comes to “the talk,” though there are plenty of suggestions out there, even a fledgling genre of kids’ picture books introducing and demystifying marijuana. “Start talking about the dangers of cannabis use, particularly in young brains, with your kids when they are still young enough to listen to you without rolling their eyes and saying, I know, Mom/Dad!” advises Caspersen.
How parents explain cannabis to their kids will be unique to each family. After all, we live in a country where the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I, “most dangerous” drug, but you can now smoke it on the street in New York. When it comes to our relationship with this plant that humans have been cultivating since 500 B.C., it’s – still – complicated.
Each household’s conversation will take its shape from the parents’ own attitudes and the culture at large where they live, the age and maturity of the kids, where marijuana ranks on your internal list of parental anxieties, and whether it’s already a feature of life in the extended family network. The important thing is to establish the lines of communication – ideally before middle school.
“Talking early and talking often in a calm and conversational manner keeps those lines of communication open between parents and kids,” said Tina Aue, director of prevention services at the Center for Prevention in Newton, N.J. This may feel strange at first, even scary. For all our lives, the cannabis leaf has been code for the illicit, a wink from the underworld.
Most parents will have to feel this out for themselves, without a role model to follow – or reject. Sixty percent of adults today say their own parents kept mum on the topic of marijuana, according to Weed & The American Family, a 2017 Marist College poll. These days most parents are having “the talk” at least once, and about a third of the parents surveyed said they talk to their kids regularly about marijuana. The quarter of parents who never broached the subject said they didn’t know what to say, were uncomfortable with the topic, or didn’t want to encourage use.
“Look for those natural times to have those conversations,” said Aue. Talks should include how marijuana can damage a growing brain and get in the way of goals, she said, and establish the household rules and expectations regarding use. “You don’t want to hide your kid under a rock and not allow them to go out and hang with their friends. But you also want to make sure that children are prepared, in the sense that if they’re at a party and they’re pressured by their peers to use alcohol or marijuana or any other drug, how can they get out of that situation? Talk about scenarios, discuss them with your kids, role-play with them so they know what to do.”
With older teens, you can still have engaging discussions that don’t come off as lectures, said Caspersen, on, say, the difference between legalization and decriminalization, the intentional medicalization of the industry to reduce perceived risk, or the addictive potential today’s cannabis.
Teens smoking pot is nothing new, but vaping has complicated the picture. Not only does vaping, with its minimal smoke and odor, make it easier for younger kids to use undetected, but we’re also living through a science experiment, with vape oils being manufactured at unprecedented potencies. Seven in ten eighth graders who use marijuana now say they use a vape, according to the 2020 Monitoring the Future survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Because of the ability to put it in vapes, they’re getting this high potency THC, which can lead to physical dependence and addiction,” said Aue. “But also those products are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and even psychosis.”
Regardless of whether it’s legal where they live, “kids can get it,” said Aue. “They’re getting it through the United States Postal Service. They’re getting it through UPS. It’s very easy to access.” As dispensaries sprout up across the state, access is only going to get easier, she said.
“On a personal parenting note, it’s a scary future,” said Dr. Caspersen, who lives in New York City. “I’ve already discussed ‘that skunky smell’ my seven-year-old sniffs on the street on the way home from school.”
By middle school, it’s safe to assume your kids will encounter marijuana – along with alcohol and Xanax and oxycodone. “All four of those things are ubiquitous in a kid’s school life,” said Dr. Jamé Heskett, author of The Well Path and a licensed medical marijuana prescriber in New York. “They’re going to be exposed to it, to a lesser extent the harder stuff like acid or cocaine, but all that’s still going to be around too.”
They’ll be faced with decisions at a time when they don’t have great perspective, and they need to know they can come to you, shame-free, for advice, information, and help if they need it. Or more likely, when they need it.
A full-throated supporter of legalization, Heskett has also dealt intimately with the dark sides of marijuana. Two of her three kids have struggled with addiction – one for medical marijuana to treat chronic pain from a neurologic disorder, the other who started self-medicating for depression and anxiety after the family moved from the city to Dutchess County. It got so bad that when one came home from college and raided the other’s stash, it turned violent.
“This is insane that I am moderating a fight over marijuana,” said Heskett. These are good kids, she said, and both are now doing well in college. Yet there they were, wallowing in the pit of unmanaged addiction. “That just tells me right there that it’s not the peace drug everyone’s talking about,” she said.
Heskett credits her strong bonds with her kids for the fact that they eventually came out the other end okay. When her kids most needed it, they had a safety net, “some container that they could be in, that worse things didn’t happen,” as she put it.
Marijuana is complex, said Heskett, just like everything on the continuum of things we put in our bodies that mess with our chemistry, from crack to Oreos. Parents, along with teachers and doctors, need to be continually having that larger conversation, imparting wisdom and science on early drug use, and keeping kids talking. And when things go off the rails, it’s a parent’s job to be there for them so that they can get back on the right track.
“Kids making decisions, even in their 20s, is just like stupid leading stupid,” Heskett said. “They’re just not baked yet. They still need a lot of guidance and a lot of – not helicopter parenting, but they need to know they have an ally that they can go to at all times. A safe place to go that’s not filled with shame and wagging fingers and anger. You know, we all were there, maybe some more so than others.”
Parents open up
One local couple tells their young kids that marijuana is a medicine that’s only for grown-ups. Another calls the plants growing in the garden and destined for Daddy’s pipe “grown-up flowers” – and don’t mention it to anyone at school, okay? That last caveat is a thing of the past in New York, where you can now can cultivate up to six plants per adult, or 12 plants per household. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it’s still a felony to grow your own without a license.
One mom found her teen daughter so “brainwashed” by the DARE program that she felt compelled to dial back the scare factor, and explain the difference between having a beer or smoking up socially and getting plastered. A Native American mom who lives in Warwick is struggling to instill a more nuanced understanding of plant helpers than the all-drugs-are-bad messaging her 12-year-old twins are getting at school.
“We believe that each substance has its own spirit that can align and assist you, or harm you,” said Tara Lambert of Warwick, N.Y., a licensed social worker whose maternal grandmother taught her about plants – growing, foraging and drying them, as well as respecting their medicinal properties and energies. Lambert’s tweens have likewise grown up gardening, foraging, and absorbing their Dakota and Métis traditions. When they were about 10, prompted by something her daughter had heard at school, Lambert began to talk to them about marijuana.
“Some medicines a person can respond very positively to, and it can be a helper,” she said. “That same medicine can not have helpful effects for some people, and it’s just not a good match for them. The idea of plants having a spirit, a kind of entity, that’s more difficult to teach because it’s not something they come across in the dominant culture. Oftentimes it feels like a little bit of a struggle because I feel like I’m competing with other messaging.”
Lambert’s daughter, who is particularly perceptive and talkative about these topics, asked her mom about marijuana being legalized shortly after New York became the 15th state to join the so-called Green Wave. “I said it is legal, but whether something is legal, illegal, or however the dominant culture sees it, that doesn’t necessarily need to dictate your understanding of it. I told her things change a lot, you know? Laws change, people’s attitudes change, but it’s really important for you to understand something very fundamental about that particular plant. So regardless of what happens in the dominant society, she’ll have a deeper and older understanding of it, and hopefully that will form her relationship to it as she gets older.”
A glimpse of the future
“I think it was actually more jarring to me to move here, after being in places where it was outright illegal my whole life,” said Meredith McGroarty, a journalist who relocated from New York to Los Angeles when her son was six. “We’ve been to friends’ houses where people go to the porch to smoke pot, like people do with cigarettes. There are billboards advertising it everywhere. Shops all over. It’s just part of the background for him, like liquor stores.”
Same deal in Eugene, Oregon, where Aislinn Longano and her husband settled in 2017, driving cross-country in an Airstream from Warwick with their three young daughters. At the bottom of their street, next to the health food store, is a medical dispensary, and there’s no more taboo about going in there, said Longano, than there is about buying wine with groceries. Adults in their circle use it for ADHD, to help keep cancer in remission, and to prevent chronic pain flare-ups. One parent friend gives a CBD gummy to her child to help with car sickness on long trips.
“Often, in front of children, parents might be partaking in edibles, or if they prefer to smoke it, they’re rolling it into a socially acceptable joint, versus pulling out the bong,” said Longano, a data analyst for an insurance company. “The discussion around it, if any, is usually along the lines of how it helps the individual. I, personally, have come across an exceptional CBD ointment that helps with back pain.”
For our kids, the iconic leaf image will soon carry no whiff of the forbidden. It will be just another advertising symbol, no different from a pig on a butcher shop sign or a martini glass on a bar window.
Whether this is problematic depends on whom you ask; expert opinion is not a monolith. In one school of thought, the normalization of marijuana is dangerous, and smoking in front of your kids is a hard no. Not only is it disconcerting for kids to see parents “not themselves,” but it makes them more likely to start experimenting themselves at a younger age. “They will do what we do, not what we say,” said Caspersen. “I recommend to parents that they avoid being intoxicated – with any substance – in front of their kids.”
In the other school of thought, drugs are already normalized in every aspect of our society these days. Kids are smart enough to see through our hypocrisy and exaggerations when we give them only one side of the story, and in the process may become cynical and mistrustful of whatever else we try to tell them.
“I’ve found that concerned parents, barraged with scare tactics... find themselves confused, frightened, and even doubting their ability to talk with their own kids,” wrote Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, founder of drug education project Safety First, in the afterword to the 2020 reprint of the children’s book, It’s Just a Plant, by New York Times best-selling illustrator Ricardo Cortés. “They fear ‘opening the door’ if they say anything at all that is remotely positive about their experiences,” she wrote. But in reality, “the door to drug use is already wide open,” and the greater risk to our kids comes with clinging to “worn-out doomsday messages.”
These days, McGroarty still has to stifle a giggle when her son asks, “Mom, what is Jedi Kush?” Straightening her face, she explains that it’s a sort of medicine that some people use to feel better, like how Mommy takes those capsules to help with pain and gummies for insomnia. “I haven’t worked out how to explain risk/reward for recreational use, but I haven’t figured that out with alcohol or cigarettes either,” she said. “I figure they can all be part of the same discussion one day – probably not that far off.”
“Make sure that children are prepared, in the sense that if they’re at a party and they’re pressured by their peers to use alcohol or marijuana or any other drug, how can they get out of that situation? Talk about scenarios, discuss them with your kids, role-play with them so they know what to do.” Tina Aue, Center for Prevention and Counseling, Newton, N.J.