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Today, the end of marijuana prohibition increasingly seems inevitable, with a majority of Americans favoring legalization, and three-fourths believing marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.
While none of these new laws allow sales to minors, parents like me are understandably concerned about the potential impact of these reforms on teenagers.
Many worry that legalization might "send the wrong message," leading to an escalation in teenage use.
As a federally funded researcher, I regularly check survey data and am reassured by the annual Monitoring the Future survey of high school students' drug use, which found recently that a majority of teens say that even if marijuana was legal, they would not try it. Preliminary data from the post-legalization 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey revealed that high school marijuana use in Colorado had actuallydecreased.
This has also been the case in states where medical marijuana is legal. Research published in prestigious journals such as the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health generally show no association between medical marijuana laws and rates of teenage marijuana use. In California, where such laws have been in place for 18 years and are perhaps most lenient, marijuana use among teens is less prevalent now than before medical marijuana was legalized, according to the recent California Student Survey.
Teenagers have used marijuana, along with alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other intoxicants, for decades. Parents and educators have consistently advocated abstinence, but despite our admonitions and advice, significant numbers of teenagers have continued to "experiment." Legalization presents just one more challenge, as marijuana becomes a normal part of the adult world, akin to alcohol.
It's time to get realistic -- to devise innovative, pragmatic strategies for dealing with teens, marijuana, alcohol, and other drug use in this new era.
Schools have a unique opportunity to use legalization to enhance civics lessons, in real time, about the process by which laws are made and how and why they are changed. Surely this will capture students' attention. Drug education should provide honest, science-based information, rejecting the ineffective scare tactics that characterized now-outdated programs such as DARE. "Just Say Know" should be our mantra.
Abstinence, of course, would be the best choice for teenagers. My bottom line, however, as a parent, is safety -- and drug education that emphasizes personal responsibility, knowledge, common sense and moderation. Students must understand that legalization applies only to adults, and the legal and social consequences of marijuana use remain mostly unchanged for them until they reach the age of 21.
Parents should approach the "marijuana conversation" by learning all they can about the influences in their teen's life, from the internet and social media to music. They should read up on marijuana, using balanced, credible sources, rejecting any source that is completely one-sided. And parents need to listen, non-judgmentally, to what their teens have to say. Advice is most likely to be heard when it is requested, and threats of punishment can backfire.
Abstinence, of course, would be the best choice for teenagers
Parents should approach the "marijuana conversation" by