Drugs

Legalization of Marijuana: What Are We Saying to the Kids?

The increase of marijuana legalization marks a good opportunity to rethink how we talk to our kids about marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ holbox

Last month Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia joined Colorado and Washington as voters approved initiatives to legalize marijuana. Other states, including California, are likely to follow in 2016.

Voters passed these initiatives not as an endorsement of marijuana per se, but as an effort to undo the damage done by its criminalization: out-of-control youth access, massive numbers of arrests, and the crime, corruption and violence that comes with a multi-billion dollar illicit market.  Tax revenues derived from sales, meanwhile, can provide local and state governments with badly needed funds for education and other critical services.

Today, the end of marijuana prohibition increasingly seems inevitable, with a majority of Americans favoring legalization, and three-fourths believing marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.

While none of these new laws allow sales to minors, parents like me are understandably concerned about the potential impact of these reforms on teenagers.

Many worry that legalization might “send the wrong message,” leading to an escalation in teenage use.

As a federally funded researcher, I regularly check survey data and am reassured by the annual Monitoring the Future survey of high school students’ drug use, which found recently that a majority of teens say that even if marijuana was legal, they would not try it. Preliminary data from the post-legalization 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey revealed that high school marijuana use in Colorado had actuallydecreased.

This has also been the case in states where medical marijuana is legal. Research published in prestigious journals such as the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health generally show no association between medical marijuana laws and rates of teenage marijuana use. In California, where such laws have been in place for 18 years and are perhaps most lenient, marijuana use among teens is less prevalent now than before medical marijuana was legalized, according to the recent California Student Survey.

Even if legalization for adults does not affect teenage use, it does present an opportunity to re-think our approach to drug abuse prevention and education – both in school and at home.

Teenagers have used marijuana, along with alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other intoxicants, for decades. Parents and educators have consistently advocated abstinence, but despite our admonitions and advice, significant numbers of teenagers have continued to “experiment.”  Legalization presents just one more challenge, as marijuana becomes a normal part of the adult world, akin to alcohol.

It’s time to get realistic – to devise innovative, pragmatic strategies for dealing with teens, marijuana, alcohol, and other drug use in this new era.

That’s why, in an effort to help navigate this new territory, I have updated Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs. Since its original publication in 1999, this 35-page resource has been distributed, in print and online to countless parents and educators, including PTAs, government agencies, and schools all over the world.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use legalization to enhance civics lessons, in real time, about the process by which laws are made and how and why they are changed. Surely this will capture students’ attention. Drug education should provide honest, science-based information, rejecting the ineffective scare tactics that characterized now-outdated programs such as DARE.  “Just Say Know” should be our mantra.

Abstinence, of course, would be the best choice for teenagers. My bottom line, however, as a parent, is safety – and drug education that emphasizes personal responsibility, knowledge, common sense and moderation. Students must understand that legalization applies only to adults, and the legal and social consequences of marijuana use remain mostly unchanged for them until they reach the age of 21.

Parents should approach the “marijuana conversation” by learning all they can about the influences in their teen’s life, from the internet and social media to music. They should read up on marijuana, using balanced, credible sources, rejecting any source that is completely one-sided. And parents need to listen, non-judgmentally, to what their teens have to say. Advice is most likely to be heard when it is requested, and threats of punishment can backfire.

Many parents today have direct experience with marijuana and are in a quandary about how much to reveal to their kids about their past or present use, fearing honest admissions might open the door to their teen’s experimentation. In states where it’s legal, some wonder whether it’s appropriate to consume marijuana openly, modeling responsible behavior, as they would with alcohol.

As a mother myself, I know that there are no easy, simple answers to these questions. Ultimately, sound science, education, openness, loving communication, and most important, safety, should guide our approach to teens, marijuana, and other drug use – whether these substances are legal for adults or not.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, is a former National Institute on Drug Abuse researcher with extensive expertise about drug use, abuse and treatment. She is the author of numerous, books, scholarly articles, opinion pieces, and most recently, Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, founded the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance. She is the author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs and Drug Education.

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