It’s now common knowledge that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the decriminalization of cannabis, and many believe that—sooner or later—full decriminalization is likely. Obviously, this is cause for celebration for those of us optimistic about its vast medical potential, or merely interested in enjoying its pleasurable psychoactive effects.
But if this tidal shift feels like a long-awaited answer to those who see the promise of cannabis, it’s loaded with questions, many of them loaded with emotional, historical and cultural weight. Perhaps none of these is more fraught than the subject of how to talk with kids about cannabis.
Even if you’re a cannabis user yourself, it’s inevitable that the subject will arise, given its widespread use and growing penetration into the mainstream. There are few easy answers, but if you take a moment to familiarize yourself with some top-level concerns and concepts in advance, you’ll likely find your opinions growing clearer, the conversation more open and supportive, and the resulting dialogue more productive.
We’re just now beginning to learn—or relearn—the incredible medical potential of cannabis, but that’s not to say it’s the best medicine for all populations and age groups. While cannabis has shown promise in treating epilepsy and other conditions encountered in childhood, it’s important to recognize that in adolescence, the brain is very much in flux, and from a developmental perspective, teenagers are genetically predisposed to take greater risks than adults.
This includes imbibing intoxicants such as cannabis. While telling kids to “just wait” can feel like a tough sell, approaching the question from the standpoint of health and brain development—in other words, factually rather than emotionally—can send a powerful message to kids wary of retarding or damaging their physical, mental and emotional development.
As a parent, you can take a moment to familiarize yourself with authoritative research and facts about cannabis and the brain.
While cannabis is finding increasing acceptance in this country, it is still illegal even for medical use in many states, and—just as importantly—has not been decriminalized on the federal level. This means that there’s an excellent chance that even possessing cannabis can bring significant consequences.
Add to this the fact that even in states with full legalization, those wishing to use cannabis must be 21 and over.
Use common sense. How you speak to your seven-year-old is going to be different than how you talk to your teenager. Tailor your conversation around what's appropriate for your child's age. Your child likely has heard conflicting messages about cannabis. On the one hand, it's still illegal on a federal level; many people still consider cannabis to be an illicit drug. On the other hand, cannabis is a real medicine. It's important to explain that many drugs are not binary in terms of being "good" or "bad." While cannabis -- like many prescription drugs -- is a medicine, it can be used appropriately or inappropriately. As a patient, you can explain how cannabis (used appropriately) provides therapeutic benefits. But, medicating with cannabis is different than using cannabis to get intoxicated. Cannabis is really no different than any prescription medicines.
Children don't always know what is appropriate to keep within the family or what can be shared. If you don't want others outside the family knowing you use clinical cannabis, it's important to clearly convey this point to your children. Provide examples of situations where it may come up. If you don't want your medical use shared, be clear with your child. If you're okay with it, teach your child how to best address the issue.
It’s a truism that kids tend to share their parents’ family values, but this is supported by cold, hard research. Being explicit about the values your family shares and goals it aspires towards is a potent and lasting message for young people, but it has to be backed up by real-world action.
As a parent, do you use cannabis? If so, are you open to your family? If—for whatever reasons—you’re using it in private, you may want to consider “coming out” to your family. Being upfront about the reasons for your use can have a profound effect in destigmatizing cannabis for your kids, and spur greater honesty and forthrightness when they’re exposed to it and develop questions of their own.
If you use cannabis, devote some time to the question of why you choose to do so. This isn’t a question of right or wrong, but an exercise to clarify your thoughts, reasons, and guidelines for use (for instance: “As an adult, I use it to help get to sleep, or to relax after work”). If you can define these standards for yourself, there’s a much better chance you can explain and discuss these personal rules to your kids, and help forge a real and meaningful conversation.
Finally, be prepared for pushback. Even the most self-assured teenagers are prone to peer pressure, and as noted above, teenagers are wired to take risks. Like it or not, there’s an excellent chance your adolescent will experiment with cannabis at some point in their teenage years. The more work you can do in advance to develop, maintain and communicate family values—and then keep those lines of communication open—the better you’ll do at navigating this confusing, challenging, but ultimately exciting time.