Screen Shot 2013-01-10 at 5.48.25 PMThis is a guest post from Lara Okoloko, LICSW, a clinical social worker who lives in Seattle area with her husband and two young children. She is co-founder and clinical director of Center for Advanced Recovery Solutions (CARES). CARES provides respectful, solution focused counseling to the parents of addicted young people. More about their services can be found at www.caresnw.com

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Well, it’s been about a month since marijuana became legal in Washington State and we haven’t gone to pot yet, although the national news circuits may suggest so… But all joking aside, many are wondering what the impact will be for children in our state. Will marijuana use increase because it will be perceived as no big deal? Or will rates of use go down because the taboo factor will be erased?

As a therapist working with parents of teens and young adults, I know that parents already face an uphill battle convincing their sons and daughters that marijuana use poses risks to their health and well-being. My hunch is that legalizing marijuana will only increase the challenge.

Pot isn’t a rarity in high school. According to 2010 data from the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, one in five 10th graders have smoked pot in the last month. By the end of high school, almost half of all students have at least tried it. This makes marijuana the second most used drug after alcohol. Surveys of drug use show a clear relationship between the perception of risk and the likelihood of drug use. The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that only 1% of youth who saw great risk in smoking marijuana had used it within the last month, compared with 10% percent of youths who saw moderate, slight, or no risk. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that legalizing marijuana will add to the perception that it is harmless, which will in turn increase the number of teens who use it.

One of the biggest mistakes parents to teens make is to believe that they no longer have influence on their kids

Even before the vote to legalize, the majority of Washington high school students didn’t see much risk to trying marijuana a couple of time. But one of the biggest mistakes parents of teens can make is to believe that they no longer have influence on their kids. Even though it’s hard to believe, amidst all of the eye-rolling, foot-stomping and stone-walling that goes on in the homes of teenagers, parents are still the most influential role model.

Teens who believe their parents strongly disapprove of drug use are less likely to use drugs than are teens who don’t think their parents have such strong feelings. A 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that past month marijuana use was much less prevalent among youths (4%) who perceived strong parental disapproval for trying marijuana or hashish once or twice than among those who did not (33%).

Parents can also influence their kids’ potential marijuana use by helping shape their beliefs about the risks. Educate yourself about the risks of marijuana use to the developing brain so that you can correct any misperceptions your children have.

  • Smoking pot places teenagers at increased risk for failing grades, poor judgement and car accidents.
  • People who first start smoking pot as a teen (rather than an adult) increase their risk of harmful effects, particularly the risk or drug addiction later in life. Adults who first smoked marijuana before age 15 years are almost nine times as likely to use heroin as adults compared to those who first smoked marijuana after 21 years of age.

Just as important, share your specific concerns with them – does drug use go against your family or religious values? Do you have a family history of addiction that makes you worry for your kids? Do you place a high value on education and worry about the effect of drugs on the developing brain?

As parents, educators and healthcare professionals, we don’t need to demonize marijuana to help our kids avoid it. As a therapist who works with parents of teens, I encourage parents to talk about marijuana similar to alcohol use: while you are a teenager, its unsafe, against the rules in our family and against the law. The teenage brain is still developing and vulnerable to harm from marijuana and alcohol, much of which can be avoided if kids wait until they are adults to begin using them recreationally.

Share Concerns With Your Teen

  • Youth who smoke pot are about twice as likely to have lower grades (C’s, D’s, F’s) than students who don’t smoke.
  • A recent study showed 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. Interestingly, this same loss in IQ was not seen in those who did not begin marijuana use until their adult years.
  • 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. Frequent smokers may experience withdrawal symptoms including cravings, irritability and sleep problems.
  • 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. Adults who first used marijuana before age 15 are about five times as likely to have a drug addiction as an adult than those who first used marijuana after age 18.

If you need more talking points, check out the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s pamphlet for parents.

The most important thing to know about the new law is that it is still illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to grow, sell or possess marijuana and it will be illegal or anyone who has a license to sell marijuana to sell it to a minor. Further, the legal driving limit for youth under age 21 is zero. If anything, the vote for legalization of marijuana presents an opportunity for parents to speak to their teens about marijuana, alcohol and other drugs. Share your values, set expectations and reach out for help if you need it.

Signs A Teen May Be 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

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. I tell parents to look for patterns instead of isolated incidents and most of all trust your gut! If your child is abusing alcohol, medications or other drugs, your child’s school counselor or pediatrician can assist you in finding help.