Eighteen-year-old Kansas Citian Keyonna Brown said when she was growing up, her parents didn’t talk to her about smoking marijuana.
“Nobody had to tell me, I learned from experience,” she said. “That’s why I don’t smoke. I get paranoid. I get scary paranoid.”
She and Jayla Wilson, 18, sat around a table the other day at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library discussing the drug use they’ve seen in their peers and in older people.
“If you stop by here once a week, you will see how many people come in here looking like they do every drug,” Wilson said. “Some kids start when they get around their friends 13, 14, 15. I know a couple of people who smoke with their kids.”
Before you shake your head in disapproval, understand that when it comes to marijuana, this is kind of a tricky moment for teens and their parents.
Marijuana use is illegal in Missouri (for now), but neighbors in Arkansas and Illinois have made medicinal marijuana legal. It’s illegal in Kansas, but just across the western border, Colorado has legalized recreational use and California recently followed suit.
For adults, that is. It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to use recreational marijuana, and that’s unlikely to ever change. And under federal law, it’s still a no-no for everyone.
It’s no wonder young people are inundated with mixed messages.
At one end of the spectrum, there are the horror stories. A 17-year-old was shot in Lawrence in recent weeks, allegedly the victim of a marijuana deal gone wrong. Among Kansas City’s 100 traffic fatalities in 2017, police attributed half to impaired driving from drugs and alcohol.
Then there are the entertainment and sports stars who advocate for marijuana. A couple of different Chiefs players have been busted over the years. And when conservative, white-bread country music is the music genre with the highest no pun intended frequency of lyrical marijuana references, some kind of change is definitely in the air.
“In today’s climate, it’s almost like the kids are more led to be involved with marijuana now than alcohol,” said Tony Woollen, district resource officer at Shawnee Mission East. “It’s more challenging for them to get alcohol than marijuana.”
In Kansas, marijuana use among young people is up in some counties and down in others. As recently as 2011-12, Kansas ranked near the bottom in use among people ages 12 and up, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration surveys. Missouri was 35th at the time, Alaska was No. 1.
The Sunflower State has seen a slow increase in use in young people since then, but it is the perception of marijuana that has seen the most significant change among young Kansans.
“What we’re seeing is the perceived risk of harm is going down,” said Lisa Chaney, director of research and evaluation at Greenbush, the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center.
For almost 25 years, Greenbush has collected data from 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders on a variety of topics in the Communities That Care Student Survey.
On the question of “How much do you think people risk harming themselves if they try marijuana once or twice?,” more than 25 percent of the students surveyed answered “No risk.”
It’s the highest percentage since the survey started in 1995.
So what’s a parent to do? What do you say to your teen when marijuana is legal over here and not so legal over there?
And, if you sparked a spliff (a marijuana cigarette) in your day, how do you talk to your kids and not feel like an old hypocrite? What do you do if you find weed in Junior’s sock drawer?
“Parents a lot of times react, like, ‘There’s marijuana here, now my kids are going to be dealing with drug cartels in wherever the drug cartels are,’ ” said Michael Moore, an Independence-based family therapist who counsels students in some Missouri schools. “That’s not the case.”
He said he sees marijuana use cutting across all types of students, like the cross section of kids who smoked weed in the 1980s John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club,” only the kids these days have iPhones.
“Just the ease of obtaining cannabis has a lot to do with it,” Moore said. “We’re looking at CBD (cannabidiol hemp oil), we’re looking at medicinal use of cannabis, those kind of things. It de-mystifies how it will affect them in the future. Students also see it as there’s a lot worse things out there. I think parents, in some ways, view it in the same way ‘My son or daughter could be using heroin or something.’ ”
Fran Stanton, a medical marijuana-legalization advocate and co-owner of It’s a Beautiful Day, the 26-year stalwart “hippie store” in Westport, said some of the all-or-nothing rhetoric of programs such as D.A.R.E. actually had the opposite of their intended effect over the years.
She said lumping marijuana in with heroin and cocaine made two generations of young people think the substances were equally potent when studies have shown marijuana is less addictive and dangerous.
Nonetheless, even Stanton is taken aback sometimes by the ways in which young people are consuming cannabis today. She thinks the farther users get from the natural plant, the more dangerous it can become. Eating it or using some sort of tincture would be healthier than smoking or vaping, for example.
“Some of these modifications to the plant I see people really abusing it,” she said. “I kind of equate it to high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oil. You’re taking the natural substance to a different level that I think, down the road, we may find health problems with it.”
Stanton is a mother herself. Her kids are now in their 20s, and her advice to them growing up was: If you go your entire life without using a mind-altering substance, more power to you and you’ll probably be a healthier person.
“Some young people open up and ask me questions about drugs,” she said. “If I feel like I’m observing something in a young person, I do what I would want another adult to do for my kid. Young people might look at me and think I’m some old hippie lady, but you can’t operate a business and be using mind-altering substances day in and day out. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to take care of your responsibilities first.”
Fred Muench, the newly installed president of the national Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, says the long-term effects on the developing brain are lessened the older a person is when she or he first tries marijuana. The brain in adolescence is in a period of impulsivity, curiosity and consequence-free thinking.
“The goal here is delay, delay, delay, delay,” he said. “Let a 25-year-old make a decision about using marijuana, not a 15-year-old.”
Muench said the Partnership has changed its tactics somewhat. The anti-drug ads are still out there, but grown-ups may not see them as much because, like all advertising these days, it’s targeted at specific markets and demographics. But there also is slightly less of it, partly because funding has dried up a little.
Past tactics of “Just Say No” have come into question in the past few decades, but it’s still pretty clear that smoke of any type is bad for anyone’s lungs. Richard Mahan, D.A.R.E.’s chief operating officer, says the facts speak for themselves.
“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s something that is healthy or a good, safe behavior to exercise,” he said. “Cigarettes are legal everywhere, but the science is real clear. It’s not just about marijuana. That smartphone they hold in their hand also is presenting young people with high-risk behavior opportunities on a daily basis.”
Parents also need to be concerned about the potency of today’s marijuana, said Rochelle Harris, a child and adolescent psychologist in developmental and behavioral sciences at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“Even in states where it’s been legalized there’s a wide range of potency and increased potency compared to the parents’ generation, when they might have been experimenting with marijuana in young adulthood,” she said. “In states where marijuana is illegal, it is not regulated, and so parents wouldn’t know and kids using the marijuana wouldn’t know what else was in it.”
Harris said studies are showing that at the very least, frequent marijuana use is having similar effects on young people as alcohol and tobacco.
“The teenage brain shouldn’t have regular exposure to any of those toxins,” she said. “We know there is an impact on the brain when it’s at its most vulnerable, at its period of greatest growth, and that is occurring in the teen years.”
Certainly, all of the grown-ups interviewed for this story said the key is to have age-appropriate conversations early and regularly. Be present in your children’s lives. Get to know their friends. Help them understand that different substances have different effects. Acknowledge that your teens likely will encounter situations involving marijuana. Understand that young people are more likely to get it from their peers and kids whose parents you know than some sketchy drug dealer.
And before speaking, take a deep breath. Or two. Relax.
“Help them navigate to the best and safest choices by discussing the consequences,” said Susan Squibb, a freelance columnist for The Cannibist.
Even in states where marijuana is legal, employers still test for drugs and still can choose to hire someone who didn’t test positive, she said. Marijuana is not allowed on or near school campuses. If a young person is charged, there could be fines, incarceration, mandatory treatment, confiscation of vehicles their own or their parents’. It might affect eligibility for extracurriculars. It could even have an impact on student loans.
Harris said parents also need to be ready to confess their own indiscretions.
“Parents need to be prepared to talk about their own experimentation and why they made a decision, if they did, to stop when they stopped and why,” she said. “I think when your kids start asking you questions and you haven’t thought about how you’re going to respond, that could throw you for a loop.”