As attitudes about marijuana use become more permissive, drug educators advise parents to talk to their kids about the health risks of heavy use.
When Beck Kilkenny, a student at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, sat down to write the pro-legalization side of an editorial about marijuana for his campus newspaper, he included more than facts and numbers to support his position.
In his article “Pot? Yes please” in City College News, the 25-year-old Uptown resident was frank about his personal use, recalling that he began smoking pot at age 17 and was a daily user for a time.
“It’s helped me with my depression,” he said in an interview after the article ran. “It makes me feel content.”
Not too many years ago, such a public admission might have put a student in the cross hairs of college administrators or police. “But really, now, why would anyone care?” Kilkenny said. “It’s no big deal.”
There’s been a major change in how Americans regard marijuana.
In the past year, polls by Gallup, Pew and CNN documented that for the first time, a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Even the president favors revising the law.
Voters have legalized cannabis for personal use in two states and 20 states have medical marijuana laws on the books. A proposal to allow marijuana as a treatment for certain medical conditions is pending in the Minnesota Legislature.
Yet some drug educators worry how this relaxed view may shape the attitudes — and drug use — of teens and young adults who are coming of age in a more permissive era.
“The message that kids are getting from all this is that marijuana is no big deal,” said Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues and former director of the Minnesota state drug and alcohol abuse agency. “But not many parents who might be tolerant about adult use want to see their own kids become heavy users.”
Falkowski believes that parents need to reframe the conversation about use and abuse of marijuana.
“Parents need to look at the research,” she said. “The jury is no longer out. We know that marijuana has serious implications for brain development, which continues until people are in their mid-20s.”
Falkowski cites studies from the National Academy of Sciences, Northwestern University and others that indicate marijuana use in teens and young adults may impair cognitive function, create subtle changes in memory and even lead to a drop in IQ in the heaviest users.
But that’s a message that many young people are not getting.
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse released in December found that while marijuana use by teens has risen only slightly, the number of teens who think there is “great risk” from regular use has dropped dramatically.
“These young adults see marijuana as benign. They hear about how it is used for medical conditions and they think, if it has all these positives, it can’t have any negatives,” said ThanhVan Vu, a chemical health counselor at Boynton Health Services at the University of Minnesota.
At 29, Vu is less than a decade older than many of the students she counsels, but she detects a generational shift in the prevailing attitude about marijuana.
“All the celebrities and pop singers use it. It’s easy for students to turn a blind eye to the consequences it can have on their neurobiochemistry. They minimize research that finds harm in use, or ignore it or are unaware of it.”
Vu said that some students who seek help at Boynton struggle academically as a result of their marijuana use.
In an ongoing longitudinal study, Boynton Health Services is surveying thousands of Minnesota college students about their drug and alcohol use every three years. The most recent results, from 2013, found only a slight uptick in marijuana use.
But Boynton’s survey of students at the university found that those who smoke the most marijuana have lower grade-point averages.
“There is an absolute correlation, and one that makes sense,” said Dave Golden, Boynton’s director of public health. “With the academic rigor here, it’s tough to be a daily user and do well.”
That’s a point worth making for parents who want to discourage their sons and daughters from smoking pot, according to Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director at Hazelden Youth Services.
“It’s undeniable that kids who use do worse in school, have lower grades, drop out more. Parents need to say, ‘I don’t want that for you,’ ” he said. “We know that kids who feel their parents would disapprove use less. The other way of saying that is, kids who feel their parents are more accepting use more.”
Compare pot to alcohol
The untimely death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman coupled with the startling number of record-setting heroin overdoses in Minnesota has prompted many parents to talk with their teens or young adults about the dangers of heroin.
Drug prevention experts say those same parents should also be talking about marijuana use.
“Parents don’t know what to say about marijuana, so they say nothing,” said Falkowski. “Kids read that as implicit approval, ‘It must be OK because my parents didn’t even mention it.’ ”
She suggests that parents frame their concerns the same way they discourage alcohol use.
“Even in the states where it is legal, it’s against the law until age 21,” she said. “Remind them that it’s something that can be unpredictable, and they might do things under the influence that they wouldn’t otherwise do. And that’s risky. It could lead to behavior that could affect their life.”
Parents who have smoked — or still smoke — marijuana may stop short of taking a hard line against pot.
Experts vary on whether parents should reveal a personal history with the drug, in part because when functioning adults admit their use, their offspring can regard smoking marijuana as an activity without serious consequences.
But Hazelden’s Lee said that parents need to spell out their concerns, especially in families with a history of chemical dependency.
“Keep the message straightforward and targeted. Don’t be wishy washy about your expectations,” he said. “You have the right to set rules in your family and it’s OK to say this is a family rule.”
Lee sees a conversation about marijuana use as an opportunity for parents to share their values and attitudes.
“Parents underestimate the influence they have,” said drug and alcohol counselor Vu. “A lot of parents have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy with their students. There’s a level of acceptance that young adults will have a period of experimentation and the tendency of parents is to think — or hope — this experimentation is harmless. But it isn’t always.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.