Pot and Parenting

How to Talk to Your Kids About Marijuana

The role of parent is unquestionably difficult. And nowhere is that difficulty more keenly felt than in determining when, where, and how to speak to your children about drugs and alcohol. But these conversations, no matter how challenging, must be held. When kids don’t get the information they need from their parents, they’ll seek answers elsewhere even if their sources are unreliable, and if they are not properly informed, they are at greater risk of engaging in unsafe behaviors.

Parents who are educated about drug use can provide their kids with simple, clear facts and eliminate any misconceptions. After all, you’re a role model, and your views on and attitudes about alcohol and drug use will strongly influence the thinking and choices of your children.

As the cultural landscape surrounding marijuana continues to change and society as a whole becomes more accepting of cannabis use, discussions about it between parents and children can get tricky, particularly if parents are proponents and users of marijuana. Although cannabis has been illegal at the federal level since 1937, and classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance (the same classification as cocaine and heroin) since 1970, the first decade of the 21st century ushered in an entirely new attitude toward marijuana.

A total of 23 states have made medical marijuana legally available to qualifying patients and the number of states that have chosen to legalize recreational marijuana is climbing rapidly toward double digits. Its presence is pervasive in popular culture, from movies and music to television shows, and more and more governmental leaders (including two-term President Barack Obama) are opening up about their own support for or use of marijuana.

Most likely, all of us would agree that kids should be encouraged to wait until adulthood to make choices about or to use marijuana, but what does that conversation look like? And what information is critical to protecting your kids from risky situations they are not yet mature enough to manage?

We’re here to help prepare you. In this guide you’ll find:

  • Reasons why kids and teens should not use marijuana
  • Strategies for talking to your kids about pot
  • Questions typically asked by kids along with guidance on how to respond
  • A fact “arsenal” to help “arm” yourself for any arguments or rebuttals your child may have

Though this guide was developed specifically for parents and guardians, anyone who works with adolescents – including mentors, teachers, and coaches – should find the information helpful.

Health, Marijuana, and Minors

Adolescent Use of Marijuana

There are two primary and utterly viable arguments against marijuana use by adolescents that every parent should use:

  • It’s illegal for everyone at a federal level, and, in states where marijuana has been legalized, for anyone under 21 years of age
  • Cannabis use can have an adverse impact on the health of bodies and minds that are still developing

Marijuana use affects the health of children and teens in ways that are not applicable to adults. The following information is available through the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

  • Marijuana can be habit-forming, particularly in adolescents. Though not physically addictive, marijuana users can become dependent. Among adults who use marijuana at least once, 1 in 11 develop a habit of use, but when the user is in their teens, that number increases to 1 in 6. On a related note…
  • Marijuana accounts for the largest number of substance abuse treatment admissions among youth. 74% of all admissions among adolescents age 12-14, and 76% of all admissions among adolescents age 15-17.
  • Marijuana use can result in lower grades. According to the NIDA, “marijuana has negative effects on attention, motivation, memory, and learning,” and these effects linger in regular users even after the immediate effects have worn off. This means that “someone who smokes marijuana daily may be functioning at a reduced intellectual level most or all of the time.” Marijuana users are also more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Marijuana can take points off your IQ. Teens who use marijuana heavily have been found to lose an average of 8 points on their IQ by mid-adulthood.
  • Marijuana use makes it harder to identify depression and mental illness in young people. Using marijuana often delays the diagnosis and treatment of a number of mental health issues in adolescents, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and mental illnesses.
General Health Implications

Marijuana use has other health implications for all users:

  • Lung irritation. Smoking marijuana can damage your lungs, leading to regular coughing, greater risk of respiratory illnesses, and decreased endurance – something of great importance to athletes.
  • Marijuana impacts judgment. Using marijuana can lead to risky behavior that would not otherwise by considered, as well as to an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and driving while impaired.
  • Marijuana users are more likely to use other drugs.Long-term studies of high school students’ patterns of drug use show that most young people who use other drugs have tried marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco first.
  • Marijuana impacts coordination and reflexes. Which is why drugged driving is so dangerous – and punished accordingly by the law.
  • Marijuana affects energy, motivation, and attention span, and has been linked to memory loss. The forgetful stoner isn’t just a character in comedy sketches. The mental and physical impact is real.
  • Marijuana can worsen depression, panic attacks, and mental illnesses. Although there is no evidence that marijuana use causes mental illness, it has been linked to a worsening of existing symptoms.

Talking to Your Kids About Pot

How to Approach the Discussion

When to Have the Discussion
  • Early. Experts recommend that parents begin discussions no later than 5th or 6th grade, but earlier is better and strongly encouraged.
  • Often. Don’t just have “THE TALK”; instead, have ongoing, relaxed discussions about marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs.
Where to Have the Discussion
  • At the dinner table. Kids appreciate having potentially uncomfortable conversations in comfortable, familiar, and private environments. At the same time, by having a conversation over dinner, you’re sending the message that the subject is not taboo and encouraging further discussion.
  • In the car. Many parent/child conversations take place in the car where parents can have brief conversations or give reminders before dropping adolescents off at:
    • Parties
    • Dances
    • Sleepovers
    • School-sponsored trips for academics or athletics
    • Or other social events
  • Anywhere. Preventing underage marijuana use is all about communication – so let your child know it’s okay to talk about it anywhere, anytime. Look for teachable moments that can lead to constructive conversations including:
    • In states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal, when you see advertisements for cannabis or pass by dispensaries and stores
    • When you see the topic in the news
    • If you observe people using illegally in public
    • When you hear references to marijuana in popular songs
    • When you notice references or use on television or in movies
Tactics for Having the Discussion
  • Start the discussion early when your kids are young. Get your message out ahead of the message of their friends or of popular culture.
  • Have the conversations in a comfortable setting. We’ve got some suggestions above.
  • Open the lines of communication. Let your child know they can talk to you anywhere, anytime, about anything marijuana-related.
  • Find out what they know. Let them begin the discussion by sharing what they know, and then gently correct misconceptions.
  • Maintain a fact arsenal. We’ve started one for you. Have a variety of facts at the ready to drill home key points and counter any arguments or misconceptions they may have.
  • Make your expectations clear, and explain why you have those expectations. Tell them that you don’t want them to use marijuana – period. Then tell them why – and be sure to include the health implications.
  • Establish and enforce clear consequences. Let your child know what will happen if they don’t meet your expectations regarding marijuana.
  • Make the conversations relatable. Tell your child why it’s in their best interest not to use marijuana as a teen. Relate it to something they care about – sports, good grades, getting a driver’s license, getting a job, getting into college, etc.
  • Be honest. Share what you do know, be comfortable admitting what you don’t know, and answer the tough questions honestly – including whether you’ve used marijuana or not. See our sample questions to get advice about addressing the most common tough questions.
  • Frame the discussion as a health issue. Rather than as a moral one.
  • Be a good listener. It’s just as important to hear a child’s thoughts, attitudes towards, questions about, and experiences with marijuana as it is to share your own. Letting them talk openly also reinforces that the communication about marijuana is a two-way street.
  • Be caring. Above all, let them know that you only want what’s best for them – and that you’ll always be there for them, no matter what.
What to Talk About
  • What they already know. And what misconceptions they may have about marijuana.
  • What they should know. Such as the laws about marijuana related to minors in your state, the health implications of using marijuana, and anything from your fact arsenal.
  • Your expectations related to marijuana.
  • What the consequences will be for not meeting those expectations.
  • Answer any questions they have. Don’t shy away – engage in a healthy dialogue. You can use our sample questions to guide you in answering the most common and the toughest.
  • That the lines of communication are open. They can talk to you anywhere, anytime, about anything marijuana-related.

Common Questions and How to Answer Them

My friends are doing it, why can’t I?

What to Say:

What Not to Say:

  • “Your friends are doing it? Which ones? I’m calling their parents.”
  • “You’re better than your friends.”

Advice from the Experts:

Isn’t marijuana safer than alcohol?

What to Say:

  • “No one drug is safer than the other. Each affects you in different ways.”
  • “It’s true that marijuana does not result in overdoses or appear to cause cancer. But as with alcohol, it’s extremely dangerous to get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of marijuana, and you can get in a lot of trouble if caught using it.”
  • “Marijuana affects your decision-making skills and your judgment. You can put yourself in some really dangerous situations that you might otherwise avoid.”
  • “Marijuana affects your health and your brain – it has been linked to poor grades and poor athletic performance.”

What Not to Say:

  • “You can’t die from marijuana, so I guess you’re right.”
  • “Marijuana is actually more dangerous than alcohol because it’ll make you go crazy.”

Advice from the Experts:

  • “It’s true that a lot of people die each year as a result of driving while under the influence, from alcohol poisoning, and from smoking cigarettes, so you should stress why you don’t want your child using alcohol or tobacco either.” – Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
  • “‘It’s only marijuana’ is how some parents think … be careful not to condone its use in any way.” – Sharon Levy, Children’s Hospital Boston
Have you used marijuana?

To see our advice for parents who currently use marijuana, go to our Tips for Parents Who Use Marijuana.

What to Say:

  • “No, and here are the reasons why I chose not to.”
  • “No, and it wasn’t easy to make that choice. Here’s how I did it.”
  • “Yes. When I was in high school I was offered weed and was not strong enough to say no.”
  • “I tried it, and I learned a lot from that experience which I’d like to share with you now so you don’t make the same mistake.”

What Not to Say:

  • “It’s not about me, it’s about you.”
  • “That isn’t relevant.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Advice from the Experts:

  • “Try not to get bogged down in your past, but focus instead on what you learned and what you know now as an adult, as well as your concern for your child and his/her future.” – Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
  • “Owning up to past use could be a positive. It allows the parent to say: ‘I’ve been there, I know what it’s like” and the kid to say, ‘Hey, I might not be able to pull the wool over their eyes.’” – Jason M. Goldberg, clinical social worker
  • “Never lie to your child. Your kid’s trust in you is too important to risk losing.” – Lori Holden, author
If you used to do it, why can’t I?

What to Say:

  • “Marijuana is not okay for a teenager – period. It wasn’t okay when I did it, and it’s not okay for you now.”
  • “I made that mistake and learned a lot from it, which I’d like to share with you.”
  • “We’re different people. You have a chance to be your own person and choose your own path.”
  • “When you turn 21, you can make your own decisions. But until then, you need to respect the law – and the rules of our household.”
  • “Times have changed. Marijuana is a lot more potent now, and the effects are potentially harsher.”

What Not to Say:

  • “Because I said so.”

Advice from the Experts:

  • “Frame your disclosure as you being honest and trying to help your child avoid the pitfalls of substance use, not as your giving permission to begin using.” – Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
  • “Be educated on how marijuana has changed. A lot of people who smoked even 10 years ago did not experience the potency of strains we have today. You’re dealing with a different type of marijuana.” – Kelly Kerby, licensed mental health counselor
  • “Deal with your own issues about the topic prior to having conversations with your child. Any emotional charge you bring to the table will affect the clarity of your message.” – Lori Holden, author
If weed is legal in certain parts of the country (or other countries), why can’t I use it?

What to Say:

  • “Alcohol and tobacco are also legal, and just like those substances, marijuana can be abused and be detrimental to your health.”
  • “In those places, marijuana is legal for adults 21 and over – and you’re not an adult yet. It’s still illegal for you and you could get in a lot of trouble.”
    • “Being arrested as a Minor in Possession of marijuana can affect your ability to get a job or get into college.”
  • “When you turn 21, you can make your own decisions – as a responsible, law-abiding adult.”

What Not to Say:

  • “Because those people are wrong.”
  • “The laws around here are different so it doesn’t matter what they’ve decided.”

Advice from the Experts:

What about vaping or edibles? Aren’t those safer than smoking?

What to Say:

  • “With edibles, you have no idea how much cannabis you’re ingesting.”
  • “It’s a lot easier to end up in the emergency room because of edibles than from smoking.”
  • “Just because it looks harmless or tastes like regular sweets doesn’t mean it’s not potent.”
  • “Vaporizing just takes away the smoke – you’re still ingesting the drug.”
  • “If you’re vaporizing wax or oils, you have no idea what other chemicals are in there.”

What Not to Say:

  • “Vaping? What’s that?”
  • “All forms of marijuana are bad.”

Advice from the Experts:

What should I do if I’m tempted, or if others are using around me?

What to Say:

  • “Use some of the ‘outs’ we talked about.”
  • “Think about your goals – does marijuana help you achieve them?”
  • “Text or call me and I’ll come pick you up right away. You’ll never get in trouble for that.”
  • “Your friends should respect your choice not to use. And if they don’t, they’re not being good friends.”

What Not to Say:

  • “Just don’t give in to temptation. It’s easy.”
  • “You’ll be in a lot of trouble with me if you’re around people smoking pot.”
  • “You won’t be able to hang out with those friends anymore.”
  • “I’m going to tell all the other parents.”

Advice from the Experts:

  • “If you want your child to be confident, assertive, and stand up for his or her beliefs, make sure you display those very behaviors. Kids mimic what they see.” – Dr. Michelle Borba

Fact Arsenal for Parents

Parents need to “arm” themselves with facts about marijuana when discussing cannabis with their kids. Use this fact “arsenal” to brush up on your knowledge before discussing marijuana with adolescents.

  • 1 in 11 adults who use marijuana develop a habit.
  • 1 in 6 users who start in their teens become dependent on marijuana.
  • Marijuana accounts for the largest number of substance abuse treatment admissions among youth – 74% of all admissions among youth age 12-14, and 76% of all admissions among youth age 15-17.
  • 90% of Americans with a substance abuse problem began smoking, drinking, or using drugs before age 18.
  • Marijuana use makes it harder to identify depression and mental illness in young people, and as a result delays treatment.
  • Marijuana can worsen the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and mental illness.
  • Regular marijuana use causes lung irritation, which can lead to regular coughing, greater risk and frequency of respiratory illnesses, and shortness of breath.
  • High doses of marijuana can induce acute psychosis or panic attacks.
Behavior, School, and Athletics
  • Marijuana use often leads to lower grades.
  • Marijuana users are more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Teens who are heavy users of marijuana have been found to lose an average of 8 points from their IQ by mid-adulthood.
  • Marijuana users are more likely to use other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.
  • Marijuana impairs judgment and puts users at greater risk of engaging in unadvisable behavior.
  • Marijuana impairs coordination and reflexes.
  • Heavy marijuana use decreases endurance.
  • Marijuana use is linked to decreases in:
    • Energy
    • Motivation
    • Energy
    • Energy
  • Marijuana is linked to memory loss.
  • 77% of 12th graders did not use marijuana in the past 30 days.
The Law
  • Marijuana is illegal at the federal level.
  • In some states, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor, and possession of certain amounts can be a felony.
    • In these states, possession can also mean a mandatory minimum jail sentence no matter what.
  • In states where marijuana is legal, it’s only legal for adults 21 and over.
    • In these states, anyone under 21 caught with marijuana can be charged with a Minor in Possession (MIP) or similar charge. MIPs can result in:
      • Fines
      • Jail time
      • Mandatory minimum sentences
      • Driver’s license suspension
  • A drug conviction on your record makes it much more difficult to:
    • Get into college
    • Get a job
    • Rent an apartment
    • Get a loan
  • It’s illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. Many states have drugged driving laws that are similar to DUI laws related to alcohol. Penalties include:
    • Fines
    • Jail time
    • Driver’s license suspension

“Outs” for Adolescents

Adolescents may eventually find themselves in a situation where others around them are using marijuana, and in which they may be offered marijuana themselves.

Having “outs” – responses that help them decline the offer – is helpful in staying drug-free. Review these “outs” with your kids, and engage in role-playing with them so they become comfortable using the outs.

  • “I’m trying to quit.”
  • “I tried it, and I don’t like how it makes me feel.”
  • “I’ve got too much to do tomorrow (studying, sports game, etc.).”
  • “My parents are picking me up soon and they’ll know.”
  • “My parents can always tell. I can’t risk it.”

How to Tell if Your Child Has Been Using Marijuana

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these are some signs that your child may be using marijuana:

  • Seems unusually giggly
  • Seems unusually uncoordinated
  • Has red, bloodshot eyes or frequently uses eye drops
  • Has difficulty remembering things that just happened
  • Has drug paraphernalia, such as pipes or rolling papers
  • Clothes smell strange, or their room smells odd
  • Keeps incense, Febreeze, or other deodorizers in their room, backpack, locker, or car
  • Wears clothing or jewelry, or has posters, artwork, etc. that promotes drug use
  • Has less money than normal or has unexplained cash on hand

Tips for Parents Who Use Marijuana

Many responsible adults – including parents – enjoy marijuana. But how do you reconcile enjoying marijuana as a parent with telling your children not to use it?

Follow these tips. In addition, check out this excellent editorial by Brittany Driver who is a contributing writer to the Cannabist, a marijuana user and advocate, and a parent who does not want her children using marijuana while underage.

  • Don’t use marijuana around your children. It undermines your message to them.
  • Keep your marijuana hidden, and preferably locked up, in a safe place. Make sure your children don’t have access to your marijuana.
  • Continue to have candid discussions about marijuana. Follow all the advice we’ve given about talking to your kids about pot.
  • Use discretion when talking about your current use. You don’t need to share, or share the full extent of, your use if you feel it sends mixed signals to your kids.

Additional Resources for Parents

  • A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Underage Marijuana Use: This pamphlet, prepared by Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Social Development Research Group, was written to help parents prevent underage cannabis use now that marijuana is legal in Washington State. But the facts and strategies it contains are helpful to parents anywhere.
  • Above the Influence: Originally an ad campaign initiated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, this website offers facts and tools to help adolescents stay “above the influence” of drugs and alcohol.
  • Children’s Hospital Colorado: Features an extensive guide on “How to Talk to Kids About Marijuana.”
  • Drug Prevention 4 Teens: This guide was created by the Drug Enforcement Administration in partnership with Learning for Life and discusses why young people use drugs, how to raise awareness, and what adolescent can do to protect themselves. The guide covers many drugs, including a section on cannabis.
  • MedlinePlus: Get a wealth of facts about marijuana straight from the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine. This website features extensive research and scientific information on marijuana. While some of it is highly technical, resources for parents, children, and teens are also included.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Check out their section on marijuana – Marijuana: Facts Parents Need to Know – which contains FAQs and advice for talking to your kids about cannabis. Additionally, NIDA for Teens, though geared specifically to young adults, provides information to educators including lessons, guides, and tools.
  • Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: Features a Parent Toolkit to help parents talk to their kids about all drugs, including marijuana. Also gives advice to parents who believe their child is using, or knows they are using.
  • Start Talking Now: A guide for parents preparing to talk to their children about drugs and alcohol, with some marijuana-specific information.