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Talking to kids about legalized pot

We’ve spent the last 30 years telling kids pot is the gateway drug to a life of addiction and crime, but now it’s legal. So now what do we tell them?

More than 30 years after we were urged to “just say no” to drugs, pot is legal in 23 states, mostly for medical purposes. However, in states like Colorado, it’s also legal for recreational purposes.

It’s a confusing issue for most grown-ups, so what do we tell our kids, now that “this is your brain on drugs” no longer applies across the board? Heck, I’ll hazard a guess that some parents aren’t above smoking a blunt after the kids go to bed. What’s a parent to do?

I asked Dr. Joan Munson, a school psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, to give me some tips on how to approach this subject with kids — without feeling like a hypocrite. Her advice is to remind children that, while they may be legal, substances like alcohol, narcotics, tobacco and yes, pot, still need to be used with caution. Remind your kids that no one knows for sure how any drug will affect their system and that it’s necessary to understand any potential consequences before using them.

“For example, a child’s brain development goes on for many years, even in the teens,” says Munson. “Most experts believe that the frontal lobe of the brain… isn’t fully developed until age 23. Using marijuana will for certain affect a young person’s memory, coordination, ability to focus and their decision-making skills.”

In other words, pot will still make you high, even if it’s legal, and kids need to know what that means for their physical and emotional well-being. While it may seem “safer” than drinking, smoking marijuana can alter your inhibitions and put teens and tweens at risk for making perilous decisions.

One of the trickiest questions your kids may ask when you broach the subject of drugs is whether or not mom or dad has ever tried pot. How you answer it depends mainly on your parenting philosophy, says Munson, but she also told me that if you choose to answer it, keep things short and sweet.

“For instance, you can say, ‘Yes, I used marijuana in high school or college but mainly because it was offered to me and I didn’t know how to say no,'” she says. “Parents who choose this route should focus on what they learned from this experience.”

Now that it’s easier than ever for kids to get their hands on marijuana, the best thing to do is start talking about it early. Munson recommends opening the conversation in middle school, but be sure to continue talking about it as the kids get older. Give them concrete examples of how to refuse the offer of drugs, like, “Dude, my mom can smell that a mile away,” or “Nah, I have an early band practice tomorrow.”

And if your child confesses to having smoked pot? Take a deep breath and be calm. Take a walk if you need a moment to gather yourself and settle in for a thoughtful, non-accusatory conversation about what happens. While a consequence may be in order, remember to praise your child for coming to you and for being honest — that’s the most important thing.

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