An increasing number of states and jurisdictions are either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession, use and growth of marijuana, including most recently on July 1st in Maryland, where marijuana is now legal for those of us 21 and over. So, what does this mean for guiding our teens through the new labyrinth of challenges and dilemmas associated with the legal endorsement of pot?
There are now bound to be additional dilemmas in the ways we parent and otherwise guide teens when discussing marijuana use. First, it may help to remember what a dilemma actually is. Merriam Webster’s “Kid Definition” of a dilemma is; “a situation in which one has to choose between two or more things, ways, or plans that are equally unsatisfactory: a difficult choice.” Dilemmas cause tension between two or more hard choices; thus, its resolution requires a thoughtful exchange between multiple viewpoints. This is no easy task, especially when caring adults worry, so coping ahead and having some strategies on hand can make hard conversations more effective and a bit easier.
Let’s break down the likely dilemmas with legalization of marijuana and some helpful strategies for tackling these challenges. Of course, the depth in which caring adults engage teens in these discussions should depend upon the age and maturity of the teen.
1) How might our conversations about marijuana use with teens need to change?
Gone are the days of one-sided pleas by adults that “marijuana is an illegal drug and therefore bad.” As pot dispensaries begin to pop up more and more, teens are not likely to be as receptive to “a hard no” on this issue from trusted adults. Everything around them is telling them differently. It is true that marijuana is still illegal for minors under 21, though penalties are usually fines and therefore less of a threat. Now that use will be more widespread in our communities (and likely to be smelled in the streets-if DC is any model), teens are not likely to accept such a simplistic message. Our conversations with teens will require more time, knowledge, and nuance.
Remember as you enter a conversation about marijuana use, you are navigating the dilemma between two perspectives, theirs and yours. There are pros and cons to everything. It may help teens take caring adults more seriously if we start by acknowledging the draw for them and validating particular points in their arguments. These typically range from, “the stuff I get is safe because it comes from a store; it is not addicting; it is safer than drinking alcohol or using tobacco; to, adults are doing it so how bad can it be.” So, when your teen tells you their stash comes from a dispensary, they may in fact be correct. Also, plenty of people have died from alcohol poisoning, though not so with marijuana. Other perceived benefits teens may describe could be that marijuana socially connects them with peers, takes the edge off of persistent stress and anxiety, and may even help them sleep. There is certainly some truth to some of these arguments, so validating what they say they get out of using, is a way to get their attention and allow for a conversation to ensue.
It is then important to communicate calmly and clearly your concerns and counterpoints based on research and facts. Studies tell us that the effects of marijuana on a developing adolescent brain have far greater negative impacts than on an adult (over 25) brain, particularly with chronic use. Marijuana use further impairs judgment in teens, whose frontal lobes responsible for self-control, are not yet fully developed, potentially increasing risky behaviors that could cause long lasting negative consequences. Teens are prone to cognitive and in fact intellectual decline with chronic pot use, much less so than for adults with more fully developed brains. Teens brains have sensitive emotional systems and marijuana use can onset or exacerbate existing (or onset latent) mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or even psychosis. Today’s cannabis is also much more potent than decades ago, and can be consumed in a number of creative forms. While a teen may think they got their stash from a sanctioned and regulated place of business, there can also be counterfeit products out there with harmful additives or laced with a more harmful substance. As far as addiction propensity, it is important to discuss any family history of addiction, which can increase risk. While occasional pot use is unlikely to evolve into addiction, regular use absolutely can become problematic and require targeted treatment. Teens will tell you it is not possible to become dependent on pot, though physical withdrawal from marijuana is most definitely a real thing and very unpleasant.
2) How might it become more difficult to prevent access to marijuana?
Even with the onset of legal medicinal cannabis, we have seen easier access for teens. Approval for medical marijuana cards seemed to have become its own market, with access to a telehealth provider for about $200, an internet connection, and self-report of any number of pretty common diagnoses, such as anxiety, sleep disturbance, PTSD, or chronic pain. Many of these med card recipients are young adults, who have found it fairly easy to purchase enough for themselves with some to spare for sale. Imagine the access with all adults 21 and over being able to go into a dispensary (soon to be cafe, bar or parlor???) and come out with some to share or sell. Many older teens also have fake IDs to use in liquor stores or bars, which would stand to reason, also allow access to purchasing pot. One last consideration when it comes to teens’ access; many parents and responsible, caring adults, are choosing to partake in the use of newly legal leaf. How may we need to consider the modeling of our own behavior, including both use, purchase and storage? Think about how inconsequential it may have felt up to now, to run into a store and grab a bottle of wine for the house, or pick up some liquor for a party with adult friends at your home. Are adults now as easily going to run in to grab some bud for a dinner party? Will there now be weed cabinets aside the liquor cabinets? As caring adults who have influence over teens, no matter the role, it feels important to take stock, assess both morals and values, and decide thoughtfully how we communicate about our own beliefs as well as behaviors in this new and aromatic landscape.
3) How can adults deter use in minors and create accountability while maintaining a strong and trusting relationship with the teens they parent or serve as providers?
It may feel helpful to remember that while this is a whole new world, the discussions about marijuana use are really no different from any other hard conversations parents and caring adults have with teens about any number of issues requiring guidance. In order to cultivate and maintain a trusting and close connection with our teens, we need to respect that they are in a stage of development that requires error to grow, learn and mature (i.e.: they will do stupid things and have absolutely no idea why). Being authentic with teens about our concerns, values and expectations and holding them accountable for their behavior with consistency and predictably, laying out contingencies and consequences in advance whenever possible, can serve to strengthen our relationship, even if they or we are angry, disappointed, or upset. Remaining caring, compassionate and offering kindness, even when holding the line on boundaries, are likely to increase teen compliance. Finally, accepting teens as they are, flaws and all, and being the one they call when they are in need or danger, can help us to continue to connect, keeping lines of communication open, especially when they have wronged, which really is when they need us most.
There is some good news to highlight for the newer states who have legalized recreational use. There are several studies from states that have years of legalized marijuana under their belts, that indicate there was no increase and in some instances a decrease in overall marijuana use reported by teens in those states after some time with legalization. There may be something to be said for making the forbidden fruit not so forbidden. We will see in Maryland how this all pans out. For now, as we embark on a new frontier, let us try as we might to be a step or two ahead of our ever savvy and curious teenagers.
~Julie Baron, LCSW-C