How to keep kids safe with the legalization of marijuana

The legalization of marijuana in the state of Washington, along with the impending legalization of marijuana sales this spring, has sparked concern among many parents who have questions on what this means for their children.

Leslie Walker, MD, division chief of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, recently co-authored a guide for parents about preventing underage marijuana use. Walker says that it’s important for parents to know the facts, learn how to talk about marijuana and be aware of the messages that their children may see.

The law

In November 2012, Washington Initiative 502 (I-502) “on marijuana reform” passed allowing legalized small amounts of marijuana-related products for most adults. This spring, marijuana will become more mainstream throughout the state with the impending legalization of marijuana sales in select approved businesses. Possession by anyone younger than 21, possession of larger amounts and growing unlicensed or unregulated marijuana, will still remain illegal under state law.

The risk and dangers for kids

There are many risks for those who experiment with marijuana. “One of the biggest things that people need to understand is that it’s addictive,” says Walker.  “The body becomes dependent on it.”

Marijuana addiction is more common among teens whose brains are still developing and vulnerable. In fact, Walker notes that 1 in 10 adults will become addicted compared to 4 in 10 teens.

Marijuana use also gets in the way of saying yes to other exciting opportunities in life. Walker says that kids who are exposed to marijuana can experience slower development, loss of motivation, hallucinations, paranoia and depression. Research has found that when an adolescent uses marijuana, and uses it regularly, they will probably loose IQ points that they cannot get back.

How families can keep kids safe

For parents, Walker’s advice is simple: clear messages make a difference. Parents should consistently relay a clear message to their children that they shouldn’t smoke marijuana, it’s not good for them, it’s not safe and it’s not acceptable. Even as teens, children care about what parents say. As marijuana becomes more mainstream and easier to get ahold of this spring, parents should have the talk with their children early and often.

“Kids at every developmental stage need to hear about the implications of marijuana again because they will process it differently,” says Walker.

Here are more tips on how parents can deliver a clear message and set guidelines about marijuana:

  • Start Early: Teenagers who use marijuana often start by age 14. Parents should start the conversation about drugs by 4th or 5th grade.
  • Teach and Practice Skills to Refuse Drug Offers: Role play situations where your child is offered marijuana by a peer and help them find the right words to refuse the drugs offered.
  • Set Clear Guidelines: Communicate the importance of healthy behaviors and establish clear and specific rules about not using marijuana and other drugs. This can be part of a broader conversation about expectations for things like chores, bedtimes and curfews.
  • Keep Track of Your Child: Monitor your child’s behavior and remain actively involved in your child’s life. Get to know their friends and network with other parents to support one another to keep your children away from drugs.
  • Keep Lines of Communication Open: Participate in activities as a family such as dinners and fun outings and communicate with them the way they do. For example, send text messages, emails and be present on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Monitor your Own Behavior: You are a role model for your child so think about what you do and the message it sends to your teen. Avoid heavy drinking or drug use around your child.

Learn more

If interested in learning more, Walker will be moderating the upcoming Youth Drug Summit called “Keeping Kids Safe in Changing Times” on Feb. 26, from 7:30-9 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle. Seattle Children’s has 250 free tickets to the event and you can visit this website to get your free tickets.

Additional resources for parents: