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Marijuana and Parents: Yes, No, Undecided

December 28th, 2008
The Belding-Abrahams Unstoned

The Belding-Abrahams Unstoned

On Nov. 4 2008 voters in Massachusetts will get to decide if people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana will still be charged as criminals. The penalties for a first offense are mild. The crime is a misdemeanor, but there can be a fine of $500 and six months in prison. Since many users are among the young, parents will take a particular interest in this question.

The good news for those of us who toil in the fields of troubled kids and their parents is that in the last ten years the percentage of high school seniors trying pot has drifted downward from 50 to 42%. The bad news is when your kid is nailed with a pot rap. The current law appears stiffer than its application. The usual first timer gets off with probation, drug education, and community service. But in rare cases a pot offense can stand in person’s way out of proportion to the crime. As crazy as it sounds, a web of Federal and state rules prevents a person from adopting a child, driving a car, getting food stamps or a loan for school. That means even if a user gets treatment and remains in recovery our marijuana law can keep punishing.

But for most parents, the practical question is at home. What are the kids using, and besides criminalization, while bad enough, what are the consequences? It’s encouraging that kids’ negative attitudes about pot have increased in the last ten years. But regarding stopping the flow of pot into this country, the War on Drugs and the $200 billion spent in the last ten years have failed. Essentially the same number of high school seniors in 2007, 84%, reports pot is easy to get, compared to kids in 1997.

Is pot dangerous? An old joke went, “Sure, marijuana is dangerous. A ton of it can crush a man.” But for the majority of kids a ton of dope is never at play. Saturday night adventurers are likely to be at no greater risk than abstainers. Far greater dangers await a kid using the gateway drugs tobacco and alcohol. The problems from pot arise in daily smokers, half of whom will move onto the felony drugs of cocaine, heroin, and the like. And pot should never be used by vulnerable persons, such as the mentally ill or addicts in recovery. If a kid claims to need pot as self-medication, he needs professional care, not backwoods chemistry.

So what’s a parent to do? Straight talk with your child is a start. You can set the limit of zero tolerance, but short of locking up your Rapunzel in a tower, a parent can’t control every choice of a teenager. Neither can schools. This is where openness and good sense at home can rule the day. Parents need to live and teach that there are better things to do with a mind on Saturday night than parking it.

Parents can’t control everything in a kid’s life, but they can control a lot. Finding tobacco or weed in a kid’s room and saying nothing is practicing a dangerous form of denial. Fighting tooth and nail the battle over teen smoking is probably the single healthiest thing a parent can do.

A more subtle problem lurks in reducing pot penalties. That policy falls between two extremes, each of which brings its own problems. The first is prohibition, which describes our current laws. Prohibition as we know from Hollywood and police reports is very good for drug dealers and the prison industry. The greater the police work, the greater the street price. Prohibition is very bad for those scientists seeking better answers through research to the questions of drugs, disease and medicinal possibilities. The other extreme is drug freedom without limits. Decriminalization isn’t legalization, but it’s not far away. And if it is, isn’t that a slippery slope to commercialization by Big Tobacco? And what about pot dependence? Surely those numbers will go up, and at what cost? The vote on November 4 will be a test to see if we can keep our balance as we move between the extremes of prohibition and license. The former has fed the coffers of drug gangs the world over. The latter has led to the fall of empires.

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