In a state likely to legalize cannabis this November, how should California parents and schools talk to kids about pot?

Living in Los Angeles, it's pretty hard to keep kids sheltered from cannabis. Eventually they'll start to notice those iconic green pot leaves as part of the scenery as dispensaries line the horizon. And if their parents have their cards, then marijuana will be part of their own households. For kids, there is a lot of mixed messaging. In school, they hear that marijuana is a drug, then at home they hear that it is a medicine.

Legalization allows families to exemplify normalizing behavior with cannabis rather than pathologizing it, says psychiatrist Julie Holland, author of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis. “Parents having to hide from kids, kids having to hide from parents — all this hiding, lying and shame makes the behavior more compulsive,” she says. “Prohibition means we can't model healthy behavior.” But as with drinking a glass of wine at dinner to model “healthy, moderate drug taking,” says Holland, legalization would allow parents to do the same with cannabis. “Kids are little hypocrisy detectors — we're sort of kidding ourselves if we think they don't know what's going on.”

Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), sets aside a projected half a billion dollars for youth drug prevention, education and treatment, which could help parents and teachers talk more openly with kids about the benefits and drawbacks of legal marijuana.

With legalization potentially around the corner, California has a major opportunity for schools, too, says Jerry Otero, founder of Cre8tive YouTh*ink, a creative-arts, social-justice, youth-development organization, and former youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance. “The legal regulation of marijuana for adults represents an historic time where we can rethink an approach that's based in a sort of ideological fantasy of a drug-free world, [which] hasn't worked, with approaches that do work.” 

Otero says that the current drug-education curriculum hasn’t worked for decades. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 40 percent of teens try cannabis before they finish high school. “It isn't working now,” he says. “Most curricula today focus on increasing the perception of [marijuana's] risk [via] scare tactics, resistance techniques, zero-tolerance policies and random drug testing.”

He adds that prohibition denies young people the information they should receive through honest, reality-based, harm-reduction education. “What happens with prohibition is that kids who try [marijuana] end up hiding, lying and doing it in dangerous ways because they don't have any safety information and they're doing it out of our watchful eye.” 

Having an honest conversation with kids about cannabis can help them understand its effects more clearly, Holland says. While marijuana is a medicine for many people in California, that doesn't mean a healthy, developing teenage brain is ready to try it. “Adolescence is not a great time to take drugs, but it's a common time,” Holland says. “What you want is some sort of harm reduction. If [kids] can defer pot use, that's better. The habits that are practiced during puberty get deeply ingrained. Biologically, it can be a dangerous time to start using drugs.” Also, being high can make it difficult to study or remember things. But if kids are going to smoke pot, she adds, it's best they do so safely.

Amid shifting public attitudes about cannabis, the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) ethos persists. “We have a zero-tolerance curriculum. We're opposed to the legalization of marijuana or other other illegal drugs,” says Ron Brogan, DARE America regional director and a 26-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “It's our opinion that people who say [marijuana] has a positive influence, be it for medical, social or recreational use, are wrong. That's what we tell kids. We tell them the use of marijuana is wrong, it's harmful to their health.”

DARE itself was created in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the early 1980s. “Being the organization that gave birth to DARE, we would also be the first to tell you that we would not recommend any schools to use DARE, nor do we allow it to be used in our district,” says Timothy Kordic, manager of LAUSD's health-education programs. “The program DARE gained a lot of popularity. However, the federal government who provided much of the funding for the implementation of ATOD [Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs] prevention education also requires our curriculums/programs to be evidence-based and research-validated. The DARE program has gone through two evaluations and both times were found to be ineffective and did not change the behavior of use.”

Still, if California legalizes cannabis, Kordic says the shift will not change anything in regard to LAUSD's drug education. “A law to manage marijuana does not change the fact that this is a drug that can be harmful when used and have serious consequences legally and physically for longtime users,” he says.

According to Otero, drug education should not only disseminate facts, science and evidence-based harm reduction methods but also should explain the purportedly racist underpinnings of marijuana prohibition.

In the early 1900s, Americans were already familiar with cannabis, as it was present in various tinctures, medicines and hemp textiles. Eventually, the demonization of cannabis became associated with the demonization of Mexican immigrants and African-American jazz musicians, who were the perceived users of “marihuana.” When the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, banning the use and sale of cannabis, hearings in favor of the new law made claims about violence and abuse inflicted by men of color who used cannabis.

During the 1960s, according to Nixon's domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, the government faced two major political enemies: peaceniks and African-Americans. “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said in 1994. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” That left a legacy of today's selective drug enforcement, with blacks 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite equal rates of use.

“Your kid is going to discover the exaggerations and lies about cannabis in the real world, and when they do, you don't want to be part of that bullshit,” says writer-activist Rick Cusick, former editor and associate publisher of High Times and chief operating officer at Whoopi & Maya Medical Cannabis, who's writing a book about pot and parenting. “Talking to my kid about marijuana — telling her I'm not supposed to say this but I want to be honest with you — added an extra layer of honesty to our relationship that we've built on and continues to this day. I highly recommend honesty. I've never lied to my kid and she knows it.”

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