“What’s that?” my 4-year-old daughter asked as I steered our car from preschool toward home one recent day.
She was pointing at the green cross of a marijuana dispensary.
“It’s a doctor’s office,” I said, feeling as if I were fibbing, you know, just a little bit.
For the next several weeks, I wondered about that approach. Was avoidance a viable strategy in Oregon, where recreational dispensaries are now seemingly as common as coffee shops? What happens when she’s older and she asks more questions? And what do other parents do?
Listen, it’s not like I’m a complete square. Nor, do I suspect, are you, dear reader. After all, Portland voters overwhelmingly supported the pro-legalization effort in 2014. Some of us voted yay out of a belief that pot is green, natural and has healthy benefits; others sought a fairer criminal justice system and some envisioned tax revenue pouring in to support struggling public schools.
But this pot and parenting thing feels like uncharted territory. It’s certainly not something our parents’ generation navigated so early, no matter how counter-culture they were. And the answers eluded me.
Then another thing happened. My daughter and I were swinging at Kenton Park in North Portland when a car pulled up next to the playground. Pot smoke billowed from the sedan, enveloping us. “Why do we have to move, mom?” the kiddo wanted to know.
Her questions and mine sent me to the experts — two Portland moms who study marijuana, but for very different reasons.
Jenn Lauder is a former elementary-school teacher and the Portland co-founder of the website Splimm.com, which markets itself as a pot and parenting newsletter in the era of legalization. (Their Michelle Obama-inspired motto: “We go high.”) She has one daughter, who is 9.
Sarah Feldstein Ewing, Ph.D., is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University and an expert in teenage substance use and other health risks. She has three children.
PDX Parent recently spoke with both of them to get advice on how to talk to kids about pot. Here’s what the moms/experts had to say.
“Just Say Wait”
Late last year, Jenn Lauder and her husband, Chad Dean, launched Splimm.com, recognizing that parents who consume marijuana products represented an untapped market in the burgeoning industry. Lauder, 37, and Dean, 39, also felt huge stigmas attached to parents who partake of recreational weed — stigmas born of false assumptions about the typical consumer that didn’t fit their own image as highly functional and super-responsible parents. “We’re not just hanging out in our basement getting high,” Lauder said.
Lauder and Dean wanted to dispel the stereotypes — and have fun, too. An educator who used to teach elementary school, Lauder comes at the topic of pot and parenting earnestly. She thinks parents ought to feel comfortable talking to their children about cannabis use in age-appropriate ways. And, she said, “Kids need the language to describe the things they’re seeing and hearing.”
That doesn’t mean parents should give their children license to experiment with what they’re seeing and hearing and smelling. In fact, Lauder’s approach can be summed up in three simple words: “Just say wait.”
And that’s a conversation parents can start as early as kindergarten, she thinks, or earlier if a child asks on his or her own. For a child under 5, Lauder said she’d keep things brief, much as a parent would with beer or cigarettes. “This is a grown-up thing,” she’d tell the child. Or, “We don’t like stinky smoke,” if you suddenly had a face full of it at the park. (Reminder: It’s illegal in Oregon to smoke weed in public, but tell that to the stoned couple next to your family at an outdoor concert.)
For her part, Lauder had her first conversation about marijuana with her own daughter when the girl was 7. “It was definitely late,” Lauder said. “It struck me that by not talking about it we were encouraging secrecy and giving her the impression that it was not something we talk about.”
She initiated the conversation by playing a 2015 video of President Barack Obama talking about national drug policy with YouTube vlogger Hank Green. (Check it out at m.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NveDmfJBg.) Lauder and her girl paused along the way to talk about the concept of drugs, why some are legal and others aren’t, and why adults sometimes choose to use them.
Lauder rarely if ever smokes weed. Her husband never does. They don’t typically consume any marijuana products in front of their child, except for the medicinal butter Dean uses for chronic digestive issues. And any food item that contains THC in their house is stored under lock and key. (See “Put a Lock on It,” page 24.)
Lauder expects the conversations with her daughter to grow deeper as she ages. At 9, she’s already well aware of sentencing disparities, for example.
One thing you’ll never hear Lauder say? That marijuana is itself dangerous. “’Just say no’ is such a lie,” said Lauder. “If I tell her it’s dangerous and she tries it and it’s not, she’s not going to trust me.”
Still, Lauder said she hopes her own daughter waits until she’s 21 and maybe even a little later to try cannabis for the first time. For now, the girl associates weed with her parents’ work. “She thinks it’s incredibly boring,” Lauder said.
Just Say Wait … A Little Longer
Perhaps surprisingly, Feldstein Ewing’s approach is not radically different from Lauder’s. “Just say wait” could sum up her approach as well, though she’d prefer kids wait even a few years longer than Lauder’s recommended 21 or so.
Thanks to the federal government’s refusal to delist marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, there’s not a lot of research on the health effects on adolescents from exposure to marijuana. But the science on young people’s developing brains is clear: “There’s a lot of construction underway between 14 and 25,” Feldstein Ewing said.
That means the later one is exposed to drugs that could potentially alter that construction, the better, she said.
In reality, teenagers commonly use marijuana for the rst time between the ages of 14 and 18, Feldstein Ewing said. That could
set them up for “a trickier trajectory,” she said. And although the research isn’t entirely established on this front, it seems people who use cannabis at a young age could struggle later with school or work, she said.
It’s not as if a teen who uses marijuana will suddenly wake up
a heroin addict. But as a researcher who studies risky adolescent behavior and who treats young people with addiction issues, Feldstein Ewing knows it’s also what happens when a young person is under the in uence of drugs that has potential for harm. “They’re not pre-destined for a life of addiction,” she said. “The bigger risks are the accidents and injuries that come along with [drug use].”
That means your child won’t face long-term consequences if he smokes a few joints. But if he does that, then dives off Punchbowl Falls and hits his head, well, we don’t want to know how that story ends. “That’s what I worry about the most,” Feldstein Ewing said, noting that accidents and injuries are a leading cause of death among young people ages 14 to 22.
So what do Feldstein Ewing’s conversations with kids about pot sound like?
Around 4, it’s all about boundaries. “That’s a place for adults,” a parent could say about a dispensary. Or, “That’s not for you,” and “That’s bad for you.” Her general rule? Don’t make it complicated. As the child ages and begins to wonder why people use drugs,
Feldstein Ewing advises parents to separate the person from the act. “They’re not bad people,” she would tell a child. “They’re people who
are making a riskier choice, and it’s something only adults should do.” I asked Feldstein Ewing how long a parent should keep up that
narrative. “Forever,” she said with no hesitation. She will tell her own children to wait until they’re 25, she said.
Feldstein Ewing said she did not waste one moment worrying that her kids might one day think she’s a killjoy. “They’re going to think that anyway,” she said. “Giving a message of non-use is the safest way to go.”