“Talk to your kids about drugs.” The slogan from the War on Drugs urged parents to teach their kids about the dangers of using any illegal substance. But with the legalization of marijuana, it’s taken on a new meaning for some households. How do you tell your kids that you enjoy cannabis?
“Mostly we assume teenagers don’t buy into the whole abstinence message,” says Dan Reist, the assistant director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. “But now that cannabis is legalized there is a risk we’ll turn our kids into cynics.”
His group produces education and policy research on drug and alcohol use. Reist takes a skeptical view of the message from programs like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, DARE., a.k.a. keeping it REAL. It’s a program taught in schools in more than 52 countries, including Canada. The program focuses on abstinence, using a heavy dose of the health dangers, and criminal consequences of using drugs and alcohol.
Drug abuse experts have long questioned that strategy. For cannabis consuming parents that’s the perfect place to start, says Reist.
“The conversation needs to challenge assumptions that the world is a neat place and you just follow the rules blindly,” he says. “We should teach our kids to hold a position but try it on lightly. To stay open to other ideas.”
That begins with nurturing the spirit of inquiry. “Don’t be authoritarian,” he says. “Listen. Be curious. Ask questions. Why do you believe that? What do your friends think? Engaging is the most important thing.”
It’s also a chance to learn, says Sherry Bennett, the founder of Let’s Talk Cannabis, an effort to encourage unbiased conversations about the plant. Focusing on the emerging research on cannabis’s efficacy at treating a growing list of diseases and conditions is a good place to start, she says. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that there are risks with using it, including impairment and potential mental health issues with heavy use by teens.
“We need to respect cannabis like we do any medicine,” she says. “Everyone reacts differently. We need to use it responsibly. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ideal for everyone or every situation.”
Done right, Reist and Bennett both agree that a talk about cannabis is a chance to deepen a relationship and build trust with a child. It may be an awkward conversation. There may not be agreement. But if parents want their kids to feel comfortable talking about anything, then discussing their cannabis use is as good a place to start as any, says Bennett.
“Legalization is an opportunity,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to present the facts. It’s an opportunity to be honest and say we don’t have all the answers. It’s an opportunity for parents to model responsible behaviour.”