Legalizing Marijuana in California: Information for Parents

It is likely that Proposition 64, which will legalize the use of recreational marijuana in California, will pass in November. At least, that is what most people expect.

As an addiction treatment provider, it matters little to me whether or not marijuana is legal or illegal. The drugs that people use and abuse are based largely on social norms, not legal status. When it is socially acceptable to use a substance, more people will choose that substance to use over others. Think about prohibition; people didn’t stop using alcohol because it was made illegal. Although use trends fluctuated, people continued to use alcohol, despite its illegal status, because it was socially acceptable to do so. Tobacco is legal, but its use has declined as smoking cigarettes has become more socially unacceptable. The trend is changing with vaping. Marijuana, by and large, is viewed in America as an acceptable substance to use to unwind or have a little fun. Legal or illegal, people are going to smoke weed.

With the increased normalization of marijuana use, there are issues about which parents must be aware:

  1. The younger a person is when they start using substances, the more likely they are to become addicted. It is well established in the medical literature thatthe younger a person is when they start using a substance, the more likely it is that they will develop a substance use disorder when they are older. We see this all the time with alcohol. Young teens who start to binge drink or drink regularly are more likely to become alcoholics than those who don’t begin drinking until they are of legal age. This is due to many factors, not the least of which being that the brain continues developing until an individual is 25 years old. Pouring substances on a developing brain can have profound, life-long impacts. Be honest with your kids that it might sound like fun to get high now, but for their long-term health, it’s best to let the weed wait awhile before trying it.
  1. The problems associated with early substance abuse can be irreversible.What happens to an individual who abuses marijuana early is life is a game of Russian roulette. Liken the situation to smoking. A few smokers will remain healthy their whole lives with no medical complications from their smoking. Most will have some problems like COPD, emphysema or chronic bronchitis. An unlucky number will have very serious issues including removal of organs, amputations, and life-ending cancers. Young people never think that these complications will happen to them or they believe that marijuana is completely safe. When talking to young people about marijuana, let them know that marijuana is now much stronger than it was fifty years ago, when their grandparents were smoking it, and marijuana does have significant long-term health effects, particularly on the brain. Long-term marijuana abuse can destroy memory and give a person life-long difficulties with impulse control.
  1. It’s important to tell young people the truth. A lot of parents are not comfortable talking about substance abuse with their children or have had horrible experiences with substance abuse – like addicted parents – and use half-truths or scare tactics with their kids. The better course is to tell kids the truth. Lots of people enjoy using marijuana for recreational purposes. It is relaxing, perhaps pain relieving, and it makes you a little silly. But it also makes you unable to safely drive a motor vehicle and impairs decision making, leaving the user open to being taken advantage of by others or making life-changing choices with devastating outcomes. When used with any regularity, it also impairs brain function, diminishing opportunities to live a full and meaningful life. Encourage young people that if they are going to choose to try marijuana, to please wait until they are older and can make an informed decision for their life-long health.

If you treat young people with respect and give them good information, the greater the likelihood is that they will make healthy choices. A little marijuana now and again might be fun for an adult, but until a person’s brain has reached maturity, the dangers and impacts of marijuana use are too great for it to be a healthy choice for young people.