Talking to kids about legal marijuana

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Story highlights

  • Recreational marijuana use is now legal in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, D.C. and soon Oregon
  • Legalization poses challenges and opportunities for parents, experts say
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(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 handful 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."
    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 (Colorado, Washington and Alaska, plus the District of Columbia and soon Oregon) and not OK for kids, said pediatrician Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director for 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.
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    Yet teens do not want to hear that, said Wolk, who is also Colorado's chief medical officer, during an interview. "The research shows that that's like a turn-off."
    Instead of focusing on the health risks, Wolk encourages 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.

    'An educated informed parental point of view'

    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 he was on a path that would not lead to a degree, so he stopped. He ultimately graduated, while his friends who kept using marijuana never did.
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    "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."
    Shuman, who is also called the "Cannabis Queen of Beverly Hills," started using marijuana in 1996 at age 36, after she suffered from 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."

    'Mom, we smell marijuana'

    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.
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    One night she got caught by her daughters, who were then ages 7 and 15.
    "They're like, 'Mom, we smell marijuana,' and it was that 'come to Jesus, aha 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" that 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, and the officer 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," said Shuman, who added 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."
    Micky Morrison, a mom of two boys, ages 9 and 12, 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," said Morrison of Islamorada, Florida, and founder of BabyWeight TV.
    "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."
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    In Colorado, where unlimited recreational use of marijuana was legalized in January 2014, policy makers are so far not seeing a jump in the overall teen use rate or a drop in the age at which teens start using marijuana, according to Wolk of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
    Wolk said his agency did a "check-in" this past fall with a small sample of teens who participate in a risk behavior survey the state conducts every two years. While the findings are not statistically significant, Wolk predicts the trend will continue if "we're doing our job correctly."
    He makes the comparison to sexual activity and birth control, and how it has been shown 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," said Wolk. "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, referring to alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarettes.

    Changing perceptions

    I wondered if we do come to a point in the near future where 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," said Morrison, the Florida mom of two. 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."
    Nick Tatro, who runs a medicinal cannabis business in California called Green Beauties, thinks language, such as removing "getting high" from conversations, can help change perceptions. Not every user gets high, he pointed out.
    "They're doing it for a little bit of relaxation or a little bit of focus or a little bit of pain management or they're doing it because they sleep better or their stomach digests food better," Tatro said.
    He continued, "I think it really works against our cause in the industry if we're promoting getting high."
    Tatro also said how people act when they take or administer cannabis (he also doesn't like to use the word marijuana) can play a role in determining if the public will one day have the same acceptance of adults using marijuana -- in places where it's legal -- as they do with people drinking alcohol.
    "People make their own decisions based on what they observe so they've got to observe people behaving like normal human beings. That's what they need to see."
    What do you think is the best way to talk to your kids about marijuana? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.