Pediatricians Warn About Dangers of Kids Using Marijuana

(CNN) — My kids are in elementary school, a little young for the “weed talk,” but I wonder whether the fact that recreational pot use is now legal in a number of states will complicate things once we start having those conversations.

Sue Scheff, a parent advocate who works with children in at-risk communities, says she’s heard from plenty of kids who say, “Well, it’s legal, so it must be OK.”

“We already have the messaging problem,” said Scheff, author of “Wit’s End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen.”

“So we need to come up with a new way to discuss it … because the kids are tuning us out.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics is weighing in, issuing new guidelines this week for doctors and parents to talk to teens about the risks of using marijuana. Changes in the legal status of marijuana may lower teen perceptions of the risk and lead more to start smoking pot, the organization said in a statement.

It points to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (PDF), which found a decrease in the percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who said they believe there is a “great risk” in smoking marijuana once a month or one to two times per week.

Pediatricians “are in an influential position to counteract the perception of teenage marijuana use as benign,” it said in the update to its 2004 guidelines.

The new recommendations include calling for doctors to screen adolescents and preteens for marijuana use. Doctors can then try to determine whether teens who are using marijuana regularly or heavily have a substance abuse disorder and would benefit from treatment, including counseling and medication.

Parents can tell their teens that marijuana is not a benign drug: It can cause abnormal brain development and impact memory, concentration and executive functioning skills, the recommendations said.

Parents should also realize that they are role models for their children and that their actions speak louder than words.

“So if you use marijuana in front of your teens, they are more likely to use it themselves, regardless of whether you tell them not to,” the statement said.

‘An educated, informed parental point of view’

It is no doubt a tricky conversation trying to explain to impressionable kids why it’s OK for adults to use marijuana in states where recreational use is legal — California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine and the District of Columbia — and not OK for kids, said pediatrician Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment.

What doesn’t work, he says, is hammering children over the head with how, medically speaking, marijuana is bad for the developing brain. The research is clear that using marijuana during adolescence could have a long-term impact on a teen’s memory, problem-solving skills and critical thinking.

Yet teens do not want to hear that, Wolk, who is also Colorado’s chief medical officer, said in 2015. “The research shows that that’s like a turn-off.”

Instead of focusing on the health risks, Wolk encouraged parents to talk to their kids about what they might lose if they use marijuana during their teenage years.

“It’s taking kids along the track of, ‘Well, you’re putting in jeopardy your potential to do well in school or to graduate or to be successful once you get your driver’s license, because marijuana does impair you if you’re going to use it and drive, and it does impair you if you’re trying to study or you’re trying to do well in school or you’re trying to get a good job,’ ” he said.

Wolk pointed to Colorado’s online resources for parents to help with the conversation.

Micky Morrison, a mom of two boys, ages 11 and 14, said they recently had the “weed talk” at the dinner table, since her older son is now in high school.

She told her sons that they may likely be offered pot at some point and that they really need to think about “whether they want to go there,” she said.

“I told them … the thing about marijuana is that it can affect your memory and your motivation,” said Morrison, of Islamorada, Florida, founder of BabyWeight TV. “If it becomes a habit, it could limit your abilities and your potential.”

Terry Greenwald, a father of grown children in Alaska, said he handled discussions about marijuana the way he’s tackled every other issue with his kids: with honesty.

He told his kids how he smoked marijuana with friends in college to “fit in” and then realized at a certain point that he was on a path that would not lead to a degree, so he stopped. He ultimately graduated, but his friends who kept using marijuana never did.

“I told my children I did not want to see them learn as I did and that I hoped they could learn from my mistake,” said Greenwald, who thinks his approach worked. He doesn’t believe his daughter smokes marijuana and said his son tried it but didn’t like it.

Kids are exposed to marijuana at very early ages, so parents are fooling themselves if they think they can shield their kids from learning about marijuana or finding out about it, said Cheryl Shuman, executive director of the advocacy group Moms for Marijuana International.

“I mean, would you rather have them learn about it from a street dealer or from an educated, informed parental point of view?”

‘Mom, we smell marijuana’

Shuman, who is also called the “Cannabis Queen of Beverly Hills,” started using marijuana in 1996 at age 36, after she got post-traumatic stress disorder following a sexual assault.

The pharmaceutical drugs she was given to treat her PTSD stabilized her moods to the point where she was like a zombie. She couldn’t interact with her kids and had suicidal thoughts, she said.

Her doctor looked at her and said, ” ‘Lady, you need to smoke a joint,’ ” said Shuman. “That was my first experience with cannabis … and it literally changed my life.”

Like most parents who are “in the closet” about their marijuana use, Shuman would sneak into the bathroom and try to blow the smoke from her joint out the window.

One night, she got caught by her daughters, who were then 7 and 15.

“They’re like, ‘Mom, we smell marijuana,’ and it was that ‘come to Jesus, a ha moment’ where I was faced with, do I lie to my children, or do I tell them the truth?” said Shuman, a successful businesswoman who is also founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club.

She sat her girls down and told them why she was using marijuana and how they needed to understand “this is a medicine to replace the pharmaceuticals” she was taking.

“Both of my girls, they pretty much cried, and they said, ‘We’re just happy to have our mom back.’ ”

Shuman said it’s important for parents to talk to their kids about the risks involved with using marijuana during their teenage years. In addition to the impact on brain development, children need to know the legal risks, how if they are in a car and are pulled over by a police officer who smells marijuana, they could end up in jail and with a felony on their record, she said.

“A lot of this is responsible parenting. Children have to be educated that just because marijuana is legal for 21 and over responsible adult use does not mean it’s OK for you to use at 15,” Shuman said, adding that her girls, now grown, don’t use marijuana themselves.

‘The genie is out of the bottle’

Shuman believes marijuana will be legalized across the United States in a very short time. “The genie is out of the bottle,” she said.

“For parents and young people, for anyone to think otherwise, they’re kidding themselves, so the most important thing is to open the dialogue (and) get people talking.”

Communication is key, said Scheff, whose latest book, “Shame Nation: Preventing, Surviving and Overcoming Digital Disaster,” is set to be released in fall 2017. Parents should never stop talking about the risk and consequences, and should give their kids tips on how to handle situations in which they might be offered marijuana.

“Give them a way out if someone offers them a joint. Give them pointers on how to say, ‘No, thanks, I’ve tried it,’ or ‘I quit smoking,’ ” said Scheff. If kids feel the peer pressure and don’t want to argue, they can say, “No, thanks, I have a test tomorrow. I want a clear head” or “No, thanks, I’m not into drugs,” she added.

Morrison, the Florida mom of two, actually thinks the legalization debate encourages more open communication between parents and children.

“I think every parent has that conversation about alcohol because it’s legal, so it’s not taboo,” she said.

“It’s OK to acknowledge that your kids are going to be faced with (alcohol), so I think in that sense, it actually makes it easier to broach the subject when you can buy it at the corner store, literally, in some places.”

In Colorado, where unlimited recreational use of marijuana was legalized in January 2014, policy-makers are not seeing a jump in the overall teen use rate.

In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, teen marijuana has gone down: In 2013 to 2014, 20.81% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the state said they used marijuana, compared with 18.35% in 2014 to 2015.

Wolk, of Colorado’s Department of Public Health, makes the comparison to sexual activity and birth control, and how it has been showed that making birth control more widely available does not lead to kids becoming more sexually active.

His major concern is keeping tabs on the messaging, branding and marketing of marijuana, especially of edibles, to make sure the products aren’t enticing to kids.

“I’m not singling marijuana out,” Wolk said. “I’m asking for the same treatment for recreational marijuana use that we would ask for other recreational substances that are legal yet potentially harmful to kids,” he said of alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Changing perceptions

I wondered, if we do come to a point in the near future at which weed shops are just as common across the country as bars, whether parents will be as comfortable with their kids using marijuana as young adults as they would be with them drinking a glass of wine or a beer occasionally.

“You know, that’s not what I would wish for my kids by any means,” Morrison said. But as her kids negotiate the “real world” and are exposed to alcohol and marijuana, moderation is the most important thing, she said.

“Just like with alcohol, if you find yourself using alcohol every day and especially throughout the day, multiple times a day, then that can create big problems in your life, but if it’s something that you do socially or occasionally, then that is moderation.”