Parenting Tools

What Parents of Teens and Tweens Need to Know About Marijuana


By Lara Okoloko, clinical director, Center for Advanced Recovery Solutions

Election day brought a lot of changes to Washington state this year, including the passage of Initiative 502, which will regulate marijuana production, distribution and possession. Passed with the approval of 55 percent of voters, the law will go into effect next week on Dec. 6.

While the legalization of marijuana has left many people jubilant, parents of teenagers and kids even younger might be feeling speechless.

If you have already heard your teen try to explain that smoking pot is harmless because it is “natural” and “not addictive,” then surely they have now added (or soon will) “and its legal!” to their list of arguments.

According to a national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 40 percent of high-school students have smoked marijuana in their lifetime, and almost a quarter of high schoolers use it regularly.

This makes marijuana the second most used drug after alcohol. Seven out of 10 high schoolers have tried drinking alcohol, and one out of five high school students “binge drank” within the last month.

Despite the assertion of many teenagers, marijuana is considered an addictive drug. In fact, among youth receiving substance-abuse treatment, marijuana abuse accounts for the largest percentage of admissions.

Teenage pot use is associated with social and occupational consequences, including failed school performance and involvement with the criminal justice system. Frequent smokers may experience withdrawal symptoms, including cravings, irritability and sleep problems.

Mark Loes, director of quality assurance at Sundown M Ranch, sees the impact of marijuana on youth and has no doubt that marijuana is addictive.

“I talk to people about the tolerance that develops and about withdrawal symptoms,” he says. “In fact, the highest rate of AMA’s [withdrawal from treatment against medical advice] that we see here are for people being treated for marijuana use.”

If you are no stranger to a joint, you may feel sheepish about telling your kids not to smoke.

But your own college pot-smoking days need not interfere with clear rules for your teenager at home. Feel confident that there are real reasons to help your teenager postpone or avoid marijuana use while their brain is still developing.

However, if you are tempted to pick up an old habit now that it will be legal, remember that you are your children’s’ most influential role model.

“If kids see parents doing it, they are leading by example,” says high school drug and alcohol intervention specialist Coquille Knutsen. “Parents need to talk to their kids about drug use even if their kids are talking back or arguing. Talking back is a normal development stage for teenagers.”

The message parents should be sending is simple, says Knutsen, “Our family does not believe in this, and there will be consequences if you use.”

Recently, an international team of researchers demonstrated that adults who had begun regular marijuana use as teenagers saw an average eight-point decline in IQ by the time they were 38 years old and that stopping the use of marijuana at a later age did not restore this loss in IQ. Interestingly, this same loss in IQ was not seen in those who did not begin marijuana use until their adult years.

The age at which a person begins using alcohol, marijuana and other drugs greatly affects their risk of becoming addicted to those substances, another reason to set firm expectations with your teen that they abstain from drug and alcohol use, at least before adulthood.

According to a national survey of drug use and health, people who first use alcohol before age 15 are more than five times as likely to abuse alcohol as an adult than those who first used alcohol at age 21.

The most important thing to know about the passage of I-502 is that it is still illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to grow, sell or possess marijuana, and it will be illegal for anyone who has a license to sell marijuana to sell it to a minor.

Also important is that the law establishes a THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) blood-concentration limit for drivers.

Because the limit for drivers under the age of 21 will be zero, any youth who is pulled over and tested for THC can be arrested for DUI for any positive result.

In general, THC can be detected in the body by urine toxicology screen for a couple of days in infrequent smokers, up to a week in people who smoke regularly, and for over a month for people with heavy use. Blood concentration is a different method of measurement with a shorter detection window. However, it is possible for THC to be detected by blood test up to a week after last use.

If anything, the vote for legalization of marijuana presents an opportunity for parents to speak to their teens about marijuana, alcohol and other drugs.

“It’s a scary time right now,” says Loes of Sundown M Ranch. “The movement around medical marijuana gave the idea that its medicine and so it’s healthy, and now it’s legal. This is a big deal.”

Parents are a bigger influence on their children than they think, so share your values about drug use and your expectation that your kids will not use drugs or alcohol, at least while they are living at home. If you need some talking points, find out more from the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s pamphlet for parents. Your kids are listening even if they are rolling their eyes.

Signs of Abuse

Concerned your son or daughter may be using drugs or alcohol? Not sure if your concern is warranted? It can be tough to tell if the changes that you are noticing are signs of drug or alcohol abuse.

Here are some things that family members may notice about someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol.

• Acting secretive or dishonest
• Significant or sudden changes in mood
• Change in social circle
• Bizarre sleeping behaviors
• Funny smells on their clothes, breath, car or bedroom
• Needing to borrow money excessively
• Cash, valuables or medications missing from the home
• Unexplainable pills, prescriptions not belonging to them, prescriptions from multiple doctors
• Alcohol or drugs in their possession, even if they say that it does not belong to them

If your child is abusing alcohol, medications or other drugs, ask your child’s school counselor or pediatrician where you can get help.

Lara Okoloko, LICSW is the co-founder and clinical director of Center for Advanced Recovery Solutions (CARES). CARES provides respectful, solution focused counseling to the families of addicted young people.

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