(Elaine Thompson, Associated Press file)

Help! My 13-year-old is smoking marijuana. What do I do?

Welcome to our Ask The Cannabist column. Clearly you have questions about marijuana, be it a legal concern, a health curiosity, a Colorado-centric inquiry or something more far-reaching. Check out our expansive, 100-question Colorado marijuana FAQ first, and if you’re still curious, email your question to Ask The Cannabist at askthecannabist@gmail.com.

Hey, Cannabist!

My 13-year-old is smoking marijuana. As a parent this terrifies me. I personally don’t use it and have no interest in it but I do understand that there are benefits to it. I understand that it has a stigma that is unfair. However, I cannot imagine that it is OK for a child of this age to use it. He tells me it is not harmful to him in any way and that I only think that way because it is what was told to my generation. I would think it would hinder his mental and or physical development. Am I wrong? I am not that educated on the topic and I have been doing some research but I need an opinion from those who are the most familiar with it. Can you give me some advice? –Panic-stricken Parent

Hey, Panic-stricken Parent!
Oh boy, I feel for you. It sounds like your 13-year-old son is being rebellious and giving you a lot of attitude right now.

Contrary to what your teenager is saying, even though you don’t partake, you don’t sound like an old fogey in your attitudes toward marijuana — you know cannabis has medicinal benefits and marijuana has an associated social stigma from years of illegality. Nonetheless, you’re absolutely right, your teenager should not be consuming marijuana. Let’s talk with experts and learn about a few helpful resources, check out study data and get behavioral recommendations. The more information you have, the less terrifying it will be to navigate this challenging time as a parent.

Here’s a wise perspective from Oakland Museum of California director Lori Fogarty, commenting about OMCA’s ground-breaking exhibit on cannabis:

“My line is, pot is much less dangerous than your parents told you and much more dangerous than your kids will tell you. That’s why we need to know more.”

We do know teen marijuana use is high in Colorado, compared with the rest of the country. Recently, Colorado was ranked in the top spot for teen marijuana use in a federal survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, although teen use in the state has not had a statistically significant increase since adult legalization. Dr. Larry Wolk, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), noted that the usage rate among Colorado teens was high even before legalization began, so this isn’t new behavior.

If use is higher in Colorado than elsewhere, how many teens are actually consuming marijuana regularly?

“Many teens feel peer pressure to use marijuana since they believe ‘everyone’ is doing it. However, research shows only 1 in 5 high school students in Colorado use marijuana occasionally,” says Ali Maffey of the CDPHE Prevention Services Division via email. Although the rate of use is higher in Colorado, consuming marijuana is not that common among teens. This is important relativity for your son.

What marijuana research has revealed

I spoke with Laura Borgelt, a pharmacotherapy specialist and professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She is a member of the Colorado Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee.  Borgelt and her medical colleagues evaluate marijuana research data and determine the quality of the study and relevance in public health recommendations. In March, the committee updated its report looking at marijuana use among adolescents.

I asked Borgelt if marijuana is harmless for teens. By phone, she mentions studies that suggest some negative consequences of use at a young age. She says: “There is substantial evidence from numerous high-quality studies concluding people who smoked marijuana frequently or daily at an early age, have an increased rate of addiction as adults.” This frequent use at a young age can lead to addiction of any kind of drug — not specifically marijuana — in adulthood.

Another study looked at cognitive skills such as learning new information and memory retention.

“There is moderate evidence in medical studies,” notes Borgelt, “that teens who are frequent or daily marijuana users experience a decrease in cognitive skills, academic performance and have a lower high school graduation rate.”  Moderate study evidence is like a fence-sitter: The factors have not been proven to be substantially related, but until we know more, it’s an area of concern.

An additional study looks at people who are predisposed for mental illness.  Borgelt says there is substantial evidence that youths who smoke marijuana frequently experience an increase in psychotic symptoms. A review of your family’s medical history for mental illness can determine the propensity of psychosis in your family.

The data mentioned by Borgelt could be the most legitimate concerns of all the studies, but other research counters some of the conclusions. A study involving 2,000 British boys concluded there is no adverse effect to IQ with early teen marijuana usage.  Another study of 400 men concluded there was no link between teen use and later health issues like psychosis, depression or asthma.  We will know more in the future as researchers continue to dig into additional correlation studies to find relationships between marijuana use and possible health risks. One notable study of American kids is starting this year: The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study or ABCD Study for short, will track 10,000 kids age 9-10 from select U.S. cities, including Denver, and follow them into early adulthood.

The problems with getting busted

In addition to possible health risks from early and frequent marijuana use, other harms associated with marijuana — like an unwelcome legacy from a possession charge — can have an impact on your teen’s future. In Denver, in addition to being against school policy, it is unlawful for anyone under 21 to possess marijuana and for anyone within 1,000 feet of a public or private school to display, transfer, distribute, sell, or grow marijuana upon any city-owned street, sidewalk or city-owned property.

If your teen is caught breaking the law, he may face a minor in possession charge, which can have long-lasting consequences on top of a fine and a possible court-ordered substance abuse treatment program. After high school, students with marijuana convictions are ineligible from accessing many forms of financial aid for college, possibly affecting his education and career paths.

The pot talk

There are various approaches for parents to discuss with teens the consequences of their actions and marijuana use. Some parents — including a pediatrician, a PTA mom and  parents with marijuana businesses — are approaching teen use from a safety perspective instead of an abstinence perspective, knowing their kids are likely to experiment with drugs.

Amid debate on medical marijuana research, Colorado taking charge
(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

There are state resources for health and safety information, and suggestions for conversation strategies with your teen about marijuana, such as the Colorado Department of Human Services, which has developed the Speak Now Colorado website to help parents identify high-risk behavior and talking points to engage families in age-appropriate conversations. The site recommends picking an informal time, like running errands or over dinner to bring up the topic, and enlisting your child’s teachers or coaches to reinforce your rules. CDPHE developed talking points for parents in the Good To Know campaign, which include focusing on positive and empowering messages and emphasizing you want your child to make the best decisions for themselves.

Inside the teen brain

For behavior advice, I spoke with Marsha Rosenbaum, a doctor of medical sociology and director emerita of the San Francisco Drug Policy Alliance office. She is the author of “Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.” In a phone interview, Rosenbaum recommends parents have an open and engaged conversation with their teen.

“Don’t sound punitive or judgmental,” she says. “The goal is to get your child talking.”

Since your son is so young, it would be helpful to find out why he wants to smoke. For a possible narrative, Rosenbaum suggests reading her “Dear Johnny” letter, which she wrote for her son the year he entered high school.

Here’s one thoughtful bit from Rosenbaum’s smart and honest letter that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998:

I will not use scare tactics to deter you. Instead, having spent the past
25 years researching drug use, abuse and policy, I will tell you a little about
what I have learned, hoping this will lead you to make wise choices.
My only concern is your health and safety.

It’s important to keep communication open.  “Punishment is not always effective, and a child who is smoking at the age of 13 is already rebellious,” says Rosenbaum. The goal is for your teen to feel comfortable talking to you.

In addition to a discussion, assess how involved your child is in school and activities. “What are they not doing that gives them free time to smoke pot?” asks Rosenbaum. She adds, “Keep your child busy, occupied and engaged.”

One good idea from “Safety First” is to enroll your child in after-school activities to keep him active from 3-6 p.m., the time of day when adult supervision is lax and teens are more likely to experiment. Even if you’re not able to completely stop your son from smoking marijuana, at least reducing the frequency of use is better than not.

When school is not in session, it’s important to maintain activities, accountability and adult supervision for teens while many parents are working. Here’s a sample of summertime programs and activities to consider for your teenager.  

Maffey suggests looking at what YMCA has to offer, Denver Parks and Rec programs, Boys and Girls Clubs and Youth Services programs through the Colorado Department of Human Services. When discussing summer plans with your teen, find programs or camps that develop an existing interest (bike camp, anyone?), summer job opportunities that build employment experience or volunteering for a nonprofit or community organization.

By all means, suggests Rosenbaum, increase parental supervision. Although teenagers might not like it, parents need to be involved with their teen, know their friends and supervise their activities. A parent needs to know what the kids are really doing. Parents might not like increasing their supervision either, but it’s critical to engage with their kid and keep talking.

Despite the teen attitude, your kid needs your help in negotiating the tough decisions he faces in his day to day. XO