Parenting the Pot Generation: Zero Tolerance Zero Gain?

Sex, Drugs & Alcohol

Two years ago this month, I moved from the Bay Area to Colorado. At the time, legalized cannabis had absolutely nothing to do with my decision. Now I find myself not only knee-deep in a cannabis startup, but also treading water parenting two of Colorado’s first generation of teens to walk past cannabis retailers on the way to school.

Sex, drugs and alcohol have never been favorite subjects at the family dinner table. Not today, nor 25 years ago. In unison my peers recall – or rather don’t recall – any meaningful discussion about any of it. But working in the cannabis industry and living in the new Colorado, I’ve had little choice but to exit my comfort zone and confront it (at least the drug part) head on. And believe it or not, it’s been very rewarding.

Before I yell from my mountaintop, let’s be clear that I am not a cannabis researcher, I’m a long way from ever being a parenting specialist, and I surely don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I am parenting under a sizably unique set of circumstances, and I take my parenting responsibility very seriously. So I’ve done my best to distill my experiences and learnings (so far) into a handful of soundbites I find worth sharing:

Zero Tolerance is a Pipedream.

When teenagers finally leave innocence behind, it’s shocking no matter how well you prepare for it. As a parent, learning of your teen’s first experience with drugs, alcohol or other – can incite a less than rational response. And not always the right one. Myself, I started with a zero-tolerance approach to teens and marijuana. "Not in my house and not at your age!!”, I shouted! That didn’t work, and now I understand why. I was no match for the forces lurking outside my front door.

I quickly switched gears to Plan B. Communication. But the real type; not just speaking at my kids, but rather with them. Two-way dialog about smoking pot is not easy and not that comfortable at the outset (especially with someone underage), but when compared to the alternatives it’s an easy choice.

Teens want what they can’t have (who doesn’t?). Those living under a zero tolerance regime spend their energy finding ways around it and lying to you; I’ve seen this movie over and over already, and not just with my teens. By the way, I’m by no way recommending an open-season solution. Boundaries are still critical, but are meaningless without establishing communication.

Pot is Your Problem to Solve. Period.

It surprised me to hear Colorado parents complaining about legalization, or more so what the government and schools were or weren’t doing about it. Like with alcohol and any other teen-desirables, parents surely have the last word in managing these issues.

We can’t depend on others nor blame 3rd parties to make this go away. Hey, I wish I could find someone else to control my kids’ obsession with SnapChat, but I can’t. Same goes for pot.

I try to learn from other parents, rather than judging how they make or implement decisions. Parenting is indescribably hard and those making genuine efforts should be respected. Regardless of which side of this argument you sit on, you’d be surprised what you can learn – and make use of – from others facing like problems.

Get Smarter. Be Relevant.

What about the studies, people often ask? Sure, you should educate yourself online about the good, the bad, the ugly written on marijuana use. But be careful. For one, it’s the Internet (enough said). Two, look hard enough and you will invariably find opposing conclusions on essentially the same study subject. Bottom line: studies remain inadequate today, bringing you back square one. It’s your job, your (and your kids’) decisions.

Whether you do, don’t or never have consumed cannabis, you need to understand the basics. Think of it as supporting your kids in a sport or art form you know nothing about. The conversation is going nowhere fast unless you can establish a minimum amount of authority on the subject. If there’s no one in your social circle to coach you, there are plenty of related books on Amazon.

Real Talk Loosens Strings on Other Taboo Topics

We are lightyears ahead of the last generations in terms of communicating with our kids. Texting alone has ensured that. But a conversation about pot must be two-way. Teens have more insights than I ever imagined (or remembered) and encouraging them to share can reap rewards.

Talk about why they like it – or why they’re interested in it. Talk about who else is using it. Talk about other, harder drugs. Talk about the medicinal side of marijuana. De-stigmatize it in the house. All this might just open their ears to thinking about the risks of abuse and, by it being less drastically taboo – they might even lose some interest in it. After all, a similar approach to alcohol has proven itself for years in countries like France.

Talking cannabis can open the door to tougher topics. More than anything, this side-benefit of an open approach has amazed me, along with others I know who have done it in their homes. Ongoing discussion about pot use has made the taboo discussions about other perils in teen life that much easier, and that much more frequent. How’s that for a different take on cannabis being a ‘gateway’?

Monitor. Talk. Repeat.

Make no mistake, conversation is by no means the be all end all. As a strategy on its own, it can fail miserably. It’s just part of a recipe that includes ongoing monitoring, various acid testing (ie. trending in school, moods, waning interests can all be helpful), and of course a realistic outlook. Sh# t can happen no matter your approach. But if conversation brings increased honesty – you’re one step ahead.

Get to know as many of your teens’ friends as you can. Influencing who they hang out with can be tricky, but knowing their friends, the group dynamics and casual chatting about their social lives are opportunities to help them make better decisions.

Be open to changing gears. Obstinance goes nowhere because teenagers are in constant motion. How they think, look and feel can change on a daily basis. If you simply stay the course regardless of a new landscape, you stand to lose what is most valuable – real contact. In my case, this meant moving from zero-tolerance to boundaries we built and monitored together as a family (little sisters/big brothers can make for excellent sources of inside information).

Help is on the Way.

While many may disagree with it, the cannabis legalization train has left the station. Be it the explosive economic growth and pervasiveness of cannabis in Colorado, or the pending vote in the most influential state of all, California — change will be constant for some time.

But with change will come help in ways that may be hard to appreciate today. As these markets mature and further commercialize, community leaders (industry vendors, government, schools, parents) will gain insights, make mistakes, fix them and as a group collaborate on a combination of education and regulations that one day will make this journey easier than it is today. Until then, buckle up.

As a parent of teenagers, like others I fear many things. I fear drinking and driving or excessive drinking that leads to violence or impulsive/bad decisions. I fear hard, especially synthetic drugs. And of course I fear excessive use of cannabis.

As for influencing the latter, the jury will be out on my approach for years to come. It may turn out that I was early – my kids tell me all the time how amazed their friends are at the dialog in our house – or that I had it all wrong. One way or another, recognize that your opportunity is merely one of influence; ultimately your teen will make the final decisions. Equip them the best you can.

Given the increasingly certain future of cannabis legalization, parents are going to have get better at this. We have no choice. And kids as well. Keep this in mind: if society’s evolution has taught so many kids to avoid drinking and driving, to say no to cigarettes, and practice safer sex, surely teens can learn to consume cannabis without becoming pot heads.

What are your experiences with this? Do you agree or has a different approach helped you? Please share.


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