- - Sunday, November 25, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture challenge of the week: Marijuana, the “harmless” drug

Weed won on Election Day.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, passed voter referendums that legalized marijuana use, effectively sending teens the wrong message about drug use.

The Colorado measure allows adults to possess and businesses to sell marijuana to anyone 21 and older. Similarly, Washington state legalized marijuana possession for adults, 21 and older. (Both states are on a collision course with federal law, as the Supreme Court has affirmed Congress’ right to outlaw marijuana use.)

Although two more states — Oregon and Massachusetts — rejected efforts to liberalize marijuana laws, the pro-marijuana forces dominated media coverage.

While a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that young Americans age 18 to 29 do support efforts to legalize marijuana (55 percent support versus 45 percent oppose), Americans in general still think it’s a bad idea (50 percent oppose versus 48 percent support). Women are more likely than men to oppose legalization, and a strikingly high number of Hispanics (65 percent) stand firmly against marijuana legalization — not surprising, given the drug wars that plague Central and South American countries.

Even so, the victories for pot in Washington and Colorado embolden advocates of “recreational” drugs. And while they couch their arguments as adult “freedom” to use marijuana, that message recklessly rolls downhill. Teens uncritically accept the lie that marijuana is harmless — and naively pursue the “adult” pleasure of getting high.

Should you be worried? Absolutely.

According to a recent Yale School of Medicine study, 40 percent of teens report having used marijuana at least once, and one-quarter report using it within the past 30 days.

“My kid would never do such a thing! ” That’s the typical reaction of most parents — but 40 percent of parents are wrong.

Marijuana users span all races and backgrounds. While boys are slightly more likely to use marijuana in the first place, girls more quickly become regular users. White girls are more likely to be marijuana users than black and Asian girls, but black and Hispanic boys are more likely to use marijuana than boys of other races.

What’s driving the increased marijuana use? The cultural messages that dominate sports and entertainment — and the poor example of our public “superstars.” When two out of three of our most recent presidents have admitted that they smoked marijuana, why should our teens believe smoking pot will hinder their long-term success?

It’s not just presidents, either. Role models, from Olympian Michael Phelps to country star Toby Keith, have used marijuana openly.

In the process, our teens internalize a dangerous message: Marijuana will not hurt them. According to a recent study from the University of Michigan, fewer than half of all 12th-graders believe that regularly using marijuana carries a “great risk,” down significantly from 1991, when nearly 80 percent perceived great risk from marijuana use. As perception of harm declines, marijuana use increases, the Michigan study reports.

How to save your family: Say “no” to pot and “yes” to extracurriculars

So what can you do?

First, level with your kids. Marijuana use is not harmless. “Mere” possession can bring criminal charges, with convictions resulting in community service, fines or jail.

Adolescents, in particular, risk serious emotional, physical and cognitive injuries from marijuana use. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, marijuana use increases anxiety, apathy and depression. For girls, daily marijuana use results in five times more anxiety and depression (ironic, given that teens often turn to drugs to relax and be happy). Marijuana use often permanently lowers the heavy user’s IQ, decreases attention span and memory, and typically results in poor grades, according to research published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Athletes should know that smoking weed deposits four times more tar into their lungs than cigarettes do, decreasing endurance. For adolescent males, smoking marijuana doubles the risk of testicular cancer — probably not the best thing to have in common with Lance Armstrong.

So much for no long-term consequences.

Second, take action.

Involve your teens in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular participation reduces the likelihood of marijuana use by nearly 50 percent for girls and 25 percent for boys, according to the Yale study.

Educate your teens about the dangers of marijuana use. Teens who learn at home that marijuana use is harmful are far less likely to smoke pot than teens whose parents stay mum. Consistently bombarded with false claims (“It’s not going to harm you” or “It’s a good way to chill out”) from their peers, the Internet or celebrities, teens need to hear a consistent voice of reason from their parents. And teens who know their parents strongly disapprove of marijuana are much less likely to use marijuana than peers who feel their parents are indifferent or mildly disapproving. Better that teens feel annoyed at “overprotective” parents than to mistake silence for indifference.

This is a battle we must win.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.