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C is for Cannabis: Now That It's Legal, What Do We Tell Our Kids About Marijuana? 

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While our parents might have been able to pretend that marijuana didn't exist when we were growing up — and avoid the discomfort of talking about it — if you're raising kids in Vermont today, there's no hiding your head in the sand. To date, 33 states, including Vermont, and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws. And since 2012, 10 states, including Vermont, and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

With the widespread normalization of cannabis, even proponents of legalization might agree that the messages kids are getting can be confusing. Like no generation before, kids today are growing up in a society where cannabis is mainstream, uncolored by War on Drugs-era stigma. They are seeing cannabis as legal, safe and "medical." They are also seeing it in an array of new forms — including vaping pens, edibles and beverages — that would make Bob Marley blush. At the same time, mounting evidence supports the idea that marijuana use by young people can impact learning and memory, exacerbate depression and anxiety, alter normal brain development, and increase the likelihood of addiction and other mental health issues in later life. All of which suggests that simply brushing pot off as "no big deal" is not quite A+ parenting.

Wherever you stand on the spectrum of 420-friendliness, you owe it to yourself and your kids to have some kind of conversation about weed. That means starting when they're as young as 8 or 10 — or even younger if they're asking questions — and keeping up the dialogue as they move into the critical high school years, when peer pressure peaks. (By 12th grade, about 40 percent of kids have tried pot at least once.) It won't always be easy. But, experts in prevention say, it's worth it.

"Young people do care what parents think, even though it frequently doesn't feel that way," says Marcia LaPlante, director of community services and planning at the Vermont Department of Health's Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs. "It takes a lot of factors to help prevent early substance abuse among young people. Family and parents are a key piece of the puzzle."

Here are some facts, expert opinions, and real-life stories to help inform the dialogue in your home.

Everybody's Not Doing It

Let's start with some good news. Kids today aren't as into drugs as they used to be. The most recent Monitoring the Future national survey on adolescent drug use, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by researchers at University of Michigan in 2018, found that the number of teens who reported using any drug — excluding marijuana and inhalants — in the past year continues to decrease. It's now the lowest in the history of the 44-year-old survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

When it comes to marijuana use among 8th graders, daily, past-month, past-year, and lifetime use all declined from five years earlier. Among 10th and 12th graders during that same period, past-year use was unchanged, holding steady at 30 percent among 10th graders and 38 percent for 12th graders, despite many states changing cannabis laws during this period.

What's more, a 2019 study by researchers from Montana State University, the University of Oregon, University of Colorado Denver, and San Diego State University found that in states with recreational marijuana laws, there was actually an 8 percent decrease in the likelihood of teens trying marijuana, as well as a 9 percent reduction in the odds of frequent marijuana use. The study's authors suggest that it's more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana in these states, as black-market drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof that buyers are 21 or older.

But parents and addiction experts stress that these numbers don't tell the whole story. Katherine Harang Hunter, a mother of three kids, ages 10 to 16, in Boulder, Colo., offers a snapshot of what Vermont could look like if legislators pass laws to allow retail sales here. "There's a dispensary within a mile of wherever you are," she says. "They're more prevalent than liquor stores. Having so many kinds of pot available is daunting. There's so much more to try, and for parents to know."

Even though fewer teens may be using cannabis in states where recreational sales are legal, they are increasingly consuming it in new formulations that concern experts because of their high potency, unpredictable effects and kid-friendly presentation. "It's very commercialized here," says Christian Thurstone, director of Behavioral Health Services at Denver Health and medical director of STEP, one of Colorado's largest youth substance abuse treatment clinics. "We have gummy squares, cookies, candies, pizzas and brightly colored sweet sodas. Smokable marijuana buds, which used to be around 10 percent THC [the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana] are now routinely in the 20 percent range." And concentrated cannabis extracts used for "dabbing" — heating them on a hot surface and inhaling the smoke — often test between 60 and 90 percent THC. Meaning, they can get you very high, very fast. In Colorado, where recreational sales began in 2014, the percentage of high school students who consumed cannabis edibles climbed from 2 percent in 2015 to about 10 percent in 2017, while those who dabbed increased from 4 percent to 7.5 percent.

Vaping — of nicotine and marijuana — is on the rise everywhere. In the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey, 7.5 percent of 12th graders in the U.S. said they vaped marijuana in the past month, more than a 50 percent one-year increase. Because a vape pen delivers a higher concentration of THC than a joint, it can be hard to properly gauge dosage.

Published studies show that kids who use a greater variety of cannabis products present more symptoms of cannabis use disorder, says Thurstone. And he has observed that toxicology screens of teens seeking substance abuse help routinely show higher THC levels than in the past.

"It's really up to parents to talk about the differences between smoking and vaping and edibles," says Harang Hunter, whose husband, a surgeon, sees an alarming number of vaping-related fungal infections, chemical burns and mouth sores. "My hope is that with a regulated environment, it will become more like alcohol, where the effects are really predictable. We're not quite there yet with weed."

Marijuana and the Developing Brain

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Marijuana's long-term effects on the brain and body are understudied and widely debated. But research suggests that, in addition to common short-term side effects of memory loss, impaired judgment, and mood changes, up to 30 percent of people who use marijuana may develop some kind of substance-use disorder, meaning they are unable to stop using despite a negative impact on their health, work or social life. Those who start using before age 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana-use disorder.

Teenagers today may be less aware of these hazards than they were in the past. The Monitoring the Future survey found that only one in four 12th graders think that regular marijuana use poses a great risk, versus about half of 12th graders who thought so 20 years earlier. But the idea that "a little bit, now and then, is fine" was challenged by a recent study by University of Vermont researchers, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in January 2019, which showed that even very limited exposure to marijuana could impact brain development. Studying MRI scans of 14-year-olds who reported smoking pot just once or twice, they found a significant increase in gray matter volume in the amygdala and hippocampus, which regulate emotion and memory, and in other regions of the brain, compared to peers who never consumed. The large effect from such a small dose was surprising. But UVM Professor of Psychiatry Hugh Garavan, the study's coauthor, says that more research is needed to understand exactly how cannabis causes these brain changes — and what they might predict about future use and problem use.

The effect of the increase in gray matter isn't yet clear, either. On one hand, it's the opposite of what you would expect in the normal brain maturation process. "Usually, you would be losing gray matter volume at this age," Garavan says, in a process called pruning, which strengthens remaining brain connections. On the other hand, he says, "it could be that the activation of cannabis receptors in these parts of the brain is leading to the growth of new neurons."

While hesitant to draw any hasty, unscientific conclusions, Garavan, a father of two teens (who "of course, don't do anything wrong") says, "There's a good amount of converging evidence, from animals and human studies, that cannabis — like other drugs — might be more problematic for maturing teen brains than for adult brains. A prudent approach would be to be very cautious."

Cautious isn't a word you typically associate with adolescents, though. In fact, sensation seeking, the attraction to new and exciting experiences, peaks during adolescence. Sensation seeking supports the acquisition of new experiences that help the brain develop. At the same time, the UVM study also found that measures of sensation seeking were higher among the teens who had experimented with marijuana than among their peers who abstained. Given all that, what can you say that might encourage your kid to make good choices about cannabis — if not sticking to the straight and narrow, at least being relatively safe?

Proceed With Caution

"We don't encourage 'The Talk'" says LaPlante, from the Vermont Department of Health. "It's not a one-and-done kind of thing. Do not call a 'family meeting' to talk about pot." Instead, starting when kids are in elementary school, she suggests, "use naturally occurring opportunities to talk about it. Here in Vermont, there's a lot of talk about cannabis — you hear about it, see signage — and there are a lot of TV shows that make jokes about marijuana, which they may or may not understand."

Regardless of their age, LaPlante recommends letting kids take the lead. "Ask them to tell you what they know," she says. (The Department of Health's ParentUpVT.org website offers tips for talking with kids at different ages, and a "Marijuana Talk Kit," which offers sample "scripts" for handling common kid and teen questions and arguments: "But it's natural!" "But it's legal!") Keep things simple with young kids, for example: "Some people use marijuana for medicine, but it is harmful for kids." As a child gets older, LaPlante says, you can get more specific about health effects, and problems with different consumption methods, like edibles, which take longer to give users a "high," often leading users to consume too much.

Even if you're trying to steer them toward abstaining entirely, "scare tactics are shown not to work," says Thurstone, the Denver psychiatrist. "So take that off the table." With kids in middle school and high school, LaPlante suggests framing discussions about substance use in the context of larger life goals, talking about how drugs could get in the way and limit their future options.

Remember, your goal as a parent should be to keep lines of communication open, which is also the goal of the Safety First curriculum developed by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance and being piloted with 9th and 10th graders at several schools in New York City and San Francisco. Rather than promoting "abstinence — or else," the curriculum emphasizes harm reduction, providing kids with accurate information to help them make safer, healthier choices. It's based in part on a sex education model, says program manager Sasha Simon. "When we're teaching kids about sex, we know we shouldn't shame them," she says. "But we still do that in the drug conversation."

Simon says that drug-related harms for teens generally break down into four major areas: physical, academic, social-emotional and legal. Practically, if teens are going to use, Simon says, they should know what they're getting into. Encourage them to learn what they're putting into their body, and particularly to avoid edibles and vaping cartridges from unknown sources, whose potency and purity are impossible to gauge. (One advantage of licensed dispensaries over the black market is that products are tested and clearly labeled.) Discourage mixing cannabis with alcohol or other drugs, and advocate a try-a-little-and-wait approach to consumption. And be super clear about driving under the influence — car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens. "If you smoke, you should wait three hours before driving," says Thurstone. "With edibles, the party line is to wait four hours, but individual responses are very different."

Parents can also help kids to be mindful of context — conveying why it's not a good idea to get high with random strangers, or to blatantly consume in public. You should also point out that advertising their drug use on social media could get them in trouble at school — and worse.

One thing that can get lost in policy discussions about cannabis is that, even in states with recreational sales, the purchase, possession and consumption of cannabis by anyone under age 21 is illegal (with some rare medical exceptions). But the punishment for getting caught varies widely. Kids should familiarize themselves with specific drug policies in their states and cities. (In Vermont, it's worth emphasizing the dangers of bringing weed across the border from Canada, where it is federally legal, to the U.S., where it is not.) If they're going off to college out of state, make sure they appreciate that drug policies might differ there.

Leading by Example

In talking with teens, says Thurstone, "nothing is more powerful than a warm, positive, loving relationship with one's teenager. It's also pretty clear that kids and parents do better when there are clear expectations around substance use — what you will and won't tolerate. That's a tricky line to navigate." It can be especially so if you use cannabis yourself.

In surveys of parents who use marijuana, Thurstone has found "broad agreement that they didn't want their kids to use it." Some of them, he says, kept their use hidden. Others were very open about it, saying, "I use, but I don't want you to." Says Thurstone: "I don't think we have the data to say which is the better way."

For some people, there's just no way around the conversation. "I smell like it every day when I walk home," says Amy Bacon, culinary director at the Champlain Valley Dispensary headquarters, where she oversees production of cannabis edibles sold to qualified medical customers. With her three kids, ages 11 to 17, "I try to normalize it," she says. "Our discussions about cannabis are about 'Mom's work,' about the legitimate reasons people use it, and 'Please don't eat an edible!'" Since she's kind of a local canna-celebrity, her kids end up fielding a lot of questions at school, she says. And they've even become advocates. "When my youngest son was in third grade and their teacher told them that all drugs are bad, he raised his hand and said, 'That's not true — my mom makes healthy marijuana!'"

While working to destigmatize cannabis in society, Bacon still hedges a bit when it comes to her kids. When her daughter found her husband's vape pen in the house recently, Bacon explained that it was "an herbal blend that helps you to sleep." Which was not technically untrue. (If your line is that you use cannabis to relax sometimes, make sure your kids also see that you have other ways of unwinding, advises LaPlante.)

Emily, a mother of two "super conservative" teenage girls in New Hampshire who asked that her name be changed to protect her privacy, has "age-appropriate" conversations with them about drugs and alcohol, with an emphasis on safety. On the subject of her own consumption — a couple of vape hits "more or less every night in my bedroom"— she says, "I'm very vague. They know I believe it should be legal, and that I do it from time to time." But in her conservative town, knowing she used cannabis, she says, "would definitely change the way people thought about me. It's not something I'd admit to most people."

Whether or not you use, just like with alcohol or tobacco, you need to establish house rules about pot, making it clear what you will and won't tolerate. Daly Richards, a single mother in the Bay Area, smokes occasionally at home and knows that her 17-year-old daughter sometimes smokes with friends. There's a strict rule against other kids getting high in the house, though. "I don't want to be liable for anything that goes wrong with other kids," Richards says.

If you do consume, make sure you're not inadvertently sharing your stash. "For parents who use, keeping cannabis well secured is a very wise idea," says Thurstone. "The most common place for kids to get alcohol and cigarettes is from home"— and there's no reason to think that weed should be any different.

You might also want to keep in mind that seeing messed-up grown-ups is a turnoff for the majority of teens. In the Monitoring the Future survey, nearly 70 percent of 12th graders said they disapprove of adults smoking marijuana regularly.

In some ways, having it all out in the open, giving kids a chance to form their own judgments, may be one of the big benefits of legalization. Says Harang Hunter in Boulder: "My kids see that it's not taboo — it's not rebelling to use it. They just think it's stupid and smells bad, and costs a lot of money that they'd rather use for other things."

So, put that in your pipe, and ... well, you know.

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