Talking with Your Child About Marijuana


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Teen marijuana use has surged since the start of the Nineties. Between 1992 and 1995, the number of 12- to 17-year-olds using marijuana doubled. And the younger the age group, the greater the percentage of increase.

Each year, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research queries 50,000 high school students about their drug habits. In 1995, 28.7% of tenth graders reported trying marijuana at least once. In 1991, just four years earlier, that same survey found that only 16.5% had experimented with marijuana. For eighth graders, the percentage of students trying marijuana went from 6.2% in 1991 to 15.8% in 1995.

Teens themselves put the number of adolescent marijuana users much higher. Typically, they estimate that three out of four high school students have tried marijuana and that at least one teen in four is a regular user. While these estimates have little statistical value, they indicate how teens view their peers.

Should You be the One to Talk to Your Child?

mj2.JPG (18909 bytes) It is clearly established that parents are in the best position to talk with their children about drugs. While the schools have an important role to play, they cannot do the job alone. The choice to use or refuse drugs is heavily steeped in values. You alone are in a position to make sure your child knows what you think is important. Teachers can provide information, but it is a parent’s job to provide a context in which this knowledge can be applied. Parental ideas and discipline do more to shape the views of children than any other influences in their lives.

Although many parents have no problem talking to their children about such highly addictive drugs as cocaine or crack, they have a difficult time discussing marijuana. This is because the case against harder drugs is clear-cut. One would be hard-pressed to come up with an argument justifying the use of these substances. Marijuana, however, is a different matter. For many parents, it is not in the same category as cocaine or crack. Moreover, marijuana is something many parents have themselves experienced.

This raises two issues. First is the question of risk. Is marijuana all that harmful? After all, you yourself may have smoked marijuana and are none the worse for the experience. Second, but perhaps more important, is the question of hypocrisy. Isn’t it hypocritical to warn children against a drug that you yourself have used?

Let’s address the second issue first. If your approach is, “Do as I say, not as I do,” you are indeed being hypocritical. However, if you openly discuss your experiences with your children, you are being honest, not hypocritical. All of us have done things we regret. Offering children an opportunity to learn from your experiences is a wonderful part of being a parent. Moreover, seeing you in human terms makes it easier for your children to relate to you and the message you are giving them.

Of course, you can relate just as well to your child even if you’ve never smoked marijuana. After all, you didn’t have to burn yourself on the stove in order to teach your toddler not to touch it.

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Now let’s consider the issue of marijuana’s harmfulness. If you ask most teenagers, they will tell you that marijuana is safe to use. Though school drug education programs have been telling them since the fourth grade that marijuana can have serious side effects, many teens believe the dangers are greatly exaggerated. “No one has ever died from pot,” is a common teenage rationale for using marijuana.

True, people aren’t likely to die from an overdose of marijuana. However, marijuana is what’s known as a gateway drug. This means that those who smoke marijuana are predisposed to go on and experiment with more powerful and dangerous drugs. The first drug experience of most users is not likely to be shooting up heroin or smoking crack.

In addition, teens who use marijuana are also more likely to use alcohol and cigarettes. And the combined use of these substances has more serious health consequences than the use of any one of these substances alone.

Moreover, marijuana itself is not the harmless high many teens and parents think it is. For one thing, it is not the same substance young people were smoking in the Sixties and Seventies. Today’s marijuana is far stronger. This means that it is both more potent and has longer-lasting side effects. Consider the following facts.

  • Marijuana impairs short-term memory and the ability to concentrate—abilities we all recognize as important for success in school.
  • Marijuana slows reflexes and coordination and also impairs the ability to judge distance, speed, and time —abilities essential to safe driving. Many teenagers, who would never drink and drive, think nothing of driving stoned.
  • Regular use of marijuana causes such respiratory problems as bronchitis, sore throats, and coughs.
  • Because marijuana is typically inhaled deeply, many experts believe it may cause more long-term damage to the lungs and heart than cigarettes.
  • Marijuana contains more cancer-causing agents than cigarettes.
  • While marijuana is not addictive in the way that cocaine and other more potent substances are, long-term use can lead to compelling dependence.

One final fact you should know is that the age at which children first try marijuana has been dropping sharply. Thirty years ago, many youngsters who tried marijuana did so as a symbol of rebellion and unity with the youth movement. Today’s reasons for youthful experimentation are not much different. Rebellion and a desire to be “cool” still prompt a good deal of marijuana use. Thirty years ago, however, most users were in their late teens or early twenties. Today, survey data puts the mean age of first use at barely 14 and preteen use has become commonplace. Obviously, the younger the age of first time users, the more immature and less capable they are of making responsible life decisions.

What to Say

Here are some questions you might discuss with younger children:

  • What is marijuana and why is it illegal?
  • What are the side effects of marijuana?
  • What are the rules at home and school about marijuana use?
  • How do movies, books, and music sometimes show marijuana in a favorable light?
  • How can you pick supportive friends who are not into drug use?

For teenagers, you might want to discuss these topics:

  • The effects of marijuana on school work, driving, and attitude
  • Marijuana dependence
  • How to resist peer pressure
  • How to maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • Dealing with stress without drugs