How should parents educate their children on drug use amid a paradigm shift in cannabis attitudes?
“I smoke weed regularly and I highly recommend it to everyone,” says Kaylie during a recent episode of the Dr. Phil Show.
Kaylie is a divorced mother of a 14-year-old girl. She and her daughter, Gabrielle, made their debut on the show after Kaylie’s ex-husband decided to take action against her permissive parenting strategy.
The complaint? Kaylie regularly smokes cannabis with her teenage daughter. “We smoke before we meditate,” said Kaylie. “We meditate together.”
Meditation wasn’t all they were doing, though. Kaylie was caught on tape sitting beside her daughter as the teen took a few massive hits off of a fat blunt. They were on their way to a concert.
For most parents, 14-years-old is a little young to be pulling several drags of herb before a concert. While the legal age for purchasing cannabis is 18 in the Netherlands and will likely be 19 in Canada, only adults 21 and over can legally access cannabis in the United States without a medical cannabis authorization.
Just like alcohol, the age limitations for cannabis have been put in place for a reason. While studies thus far have shown limited harms and perhaps even wellness benefits for cannabis consuming adults, these same benefits are not seen in teens.
In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that cannabis is more beneficial for aging adults, not for those who are still developing. The depressant effects of cannabis, for example, last longer in teens than they do in adults.
Since teens also easily pick up long-lasting habits, many science professionals are concerned that chronic cannabis consumption in teens may increase the chances of lifetime consumption, as well as affect learning, memory, mental health, and behavior.
Still, knowing the risks, Kaylie made the conscious choice to spark up with her daughter.
“At her age,” says Kaylie, “[Gabrielle] had started smoking marijuana before.”
“I don’t know when a couple of years ago at least. I could see that she’s smoking marijuana, I could smell that she’s smoking marijuana, and she would smoke until she was just worthless. She couldn’t walk around or do anything. […] It really frightens me that she could get something horrible. Or that she’s just going to smoke and smoke and smoke until she’s blue, which is not the point,” said Kaylie
As per every Dr. Phil episode, the audience was shocked. Not only was Kaylie sparking up with her daughter, but she shared her medical cannabis with the teen and created a positive attitude around the plant. Some would say that Kaylie encouraged her daughter to partake.
Whether or not Kaylie is a “good parent” in this case is up to her and her family to decide. This segment, however, touches on some crucial problems parents face in the changing cannabis climate.
“You pretend like your kids aren’t doing things, you tell yourself that your kids aren’t doing things, that you’re a good parent, and you’re just lying to yourself. It’s just not true,” says Kaylie.
The “just say no” approach to cannabis and other substances took off in the 1980s when the notorious “War on Drugs” started to get hot and heavy.
In an effort to stomp out drug use for good, the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) curriculum was introduced to Los Angeles in 1983. The program invited police officers into schools in an effort to convince kids that drugs were bad.
As the Washington Post reports, after receiving wide political support in Los Angeles, the DARE program eventually spread to over 75 percent of schools in the United States. Yet, nearly a decade after the DARE program worked its way across America, the hard-hitting research found that the program had little to no impact on drug abuse.
In fact, at least one study suggests that DARE education may have made drug abuse among young people even worse. Graver still, DARE relies on law enforcement to teach young children about drugs, not medical science.
The DARE program forced an abstinence-only policy, highlighting the dangers of drug use and encouraging responsible decision making.
“The effort has been to use a lot of misinformation to try to scare teenagers away from using pretty much anything,” explains Marsha Rosenbaum. Rosenbalm is a Director Emerita for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization which seeks a reality-based, harms reduction approach to drugs and drug abuse. She also holds a doctorate in Medical Sociology.
Rosenbalm has been a key contributor to a new school curriculum on sensible drug education. The curriculum, called Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach To Teens and Drugs, is the anti-DARE.
Piloting in New York, the program is intended to be used in ninth and tenth-grade health classes. Unlike DARE and similar abstinence-based education, Safety First seeks to educate teens on how to limit harms no matter what decision they make.
“It’s got at its core the notion of harm reduction. That means that whereas the best choice for teenagers abstinence, hands down, the best choice. However, they make their own decisions. And sometimes they don’t decide to say ‘no’. They say ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’. Accepting that reality is the first step, and then figuring out if you can’t have abstinence, what’s your plan B? What’s the fallback?” says Rosenbalm
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is an international organization of students and young people seeking changes toward realistic drug policy. Chapters exist in 13 different countries. Recently, SSDP has been invited to pilot a mentor-based peer education program in Denver a high school.
The project is monitored in part by Vilmarie Narloch, Drug Education Manager for SSDP and a practiced clinical psychologist with a focus on substance abuse disorders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the major points of interest in the Denver high school program is cannabis.
“We’ll be talking more about the developing brain and some of the potential concerns that exist there, and what some of the research as said, but again, acknowledging that there are students in this school that are already consuming cannabis. So, what can we teach them to ensure that they’re going to be safe about it?” says Narloch
SSDP already has a “Peer Education Program” for college students. The program allows campus peers to engage in educational sessions taught by other college students. Already, the program is requested by universities across the United States.
“We’re targeting students and young people that may already be using the substance,” says Vilmarie. We acknowledge that young people are already using these drugs and we want to ensure that, since they are already doing so, give them the tools that allow them to do so in the safest way possible.”
In no way do Safety First nor Students for Sensible Drug Policy promote drug use or cannabis consumption, but these are among the first major programs to acknowledge that many teens and college students do not “just say no”.
After decades of prohibition and abstinence only, teaching teens and young people about cannabis is difficult. It’s not only difficult when dealing with a child’s potential cannabis use, but when explaining your own newfound right to partake as an adult.
“After telling my older one about the fact that I used cannabis, she asked me how I used it, so I showed her my vape pen,” tells Celia Behar, a medical cannabis patient and co-founder of Lil Mamas, a website that seeks to provide moms with real talk about parenting (and sometimes cannabis).
“You want to think you’re making the right call as a parent, but there’s almost no way to know that with pretty much anything. I mean, it could all backfire, right? But I firmly believe that if the stigma of cannabis is going to change, we have to talk about it. And that includes talking to our kids.”