Parents prep for realities of legalized marijuana

FILE PHOTO - A young man smokes a marijuana joint during a rally in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 20, 2011.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

TORONTO - B.C. mom Scarlett Ballantyne wonders if Ottawa's plans to legalize marijuana will make her 14- and 16-year-old daughters more inclined to try it. But she's not waiting to find out.

Ballantyne says her family has been discussing the dangers of drug use since the girls were 13 — a pre-emptive strike as pot shops and marijuana headlines have been popping up everywhere they turn.

She's proud to say they are athletic, self-confident kids, but she also gets the impression that their generation sees marijuana as "not that big of a deal."

"As parents, it's just (about) stressing to them that it is a big deal," she says from her home in White Rock, south of Vancouver.

"There's a reason why it hasn't been legal and whatever my personal feelings about it are, they are still underage. They're too young to smoke tobacco, they're too young to smoke marijuana, they're too young to drink alcohol. And there's a reason for those rules."

Many questions remain about what restrictions Ottawa might impose when it introduces legislation next year to legalize recreational use.

In the meantime, experts say parents should be prepared for any questions their kids might have — but don't wait until you find a stash in their room.

It's never too early to start the conversation, says Cindy Andrew of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria.

The key is to remain approachable.

Andrew, who helps schools devise drug education programs, says the hard-nosed '80s approach of a sizzling fried egg and the slogan "this is your brain on drugs" just doesn't fly.

"The sort of moralistic, judgmental, scare-based tactic kind of approach really doesn't have a place in today's world," says Andrew.

"This isn't about just railing on your kids and pointing fingers and lecturing, which we know does not work. It's about opening up conversation and ongoing communication. It's not about 'the talk.' It's about connecting with your kids, it's about starting the conversations well before you discover a joint in their pocket."

Parents can use a trip to the dentist to talk about pain medications with their grade-schoolers, she suggests, adding that any talk of drugs should include both positive and negative aspects of use.

This age is also a good time to discuss shared family values, adds Beverley Cathcart-Ross, co-author of "Raising Great Parents."

Since "parenting is about prevention," she says it's important to let pre-pubescent kids know they can rely on Mom and Dad if they got into trouble or succumbed to peer pressure.

This is also the time to teach kids how to say "no."

"They're going to be exposed and they're going to be tempted and part of the pre-teen life is thrills and excitement and breaking away from childhood and feeling like a big kid and an adult," says the Toronto-based parenting coach and founder of the Parenting Network.

Get older kids to open up by asking lots of questions and giving them equal time to talk, she advises. If a child admits to smoking the odd cigarette, don't argue, she says. Instead, get them to research how quickly addiction can happen and report their findings to you.

"The minute the parent tries to be the boss of it and take the upper hand ... that drives teenagers underground," says Cathcart-Ross.

"You can give your opinion and your values but how many times are you going to say that? Once? Twice? Three, four, 50 times? Because it's going to come up over the next five years with that kid.... If you have said your opinion three times and it's still going on then it's time for something new. Because your teenager knows your opinion, they absolutely heard you. It's registered but they're choosing to disregard that."

That was the case with one Toronto dad who requested anonymity as he recounted getting slammed by a "two by four across the head" upon finding a stash of weed in his 16-year-old's room.

He and his wife took his bong, pipe and drugs, but the boy continued to smoke, and the family continued to argue. As he got older, it escalated and mom and dad had to acknowledge there was nothing they could say to make him stop.

"You think you know, you do not know. That's number one," the dad says of his struggles.

"You need to have a tool kit that you can draw upon around how you're going to have a dialogue with your kid. You need to understand what's going on inside their head. You need to understand how it's going to affect your relationship. You need to understand what words you can use, what techniques you can use in order to deal with the situation. You can't kind of do it on the fly, you need a bit of a road map."

After consulting Cathcart-Ross, the family managed to come to an agreement: No smoking in the house, no friends smoking in the house, no pot in the house, and no driving the car under the influence. They agreed the boy could smoke in the shed.

"Our guiding principle was we're going to maintain a relationship, we're going to call him on the behaviour and say we don't like it," says the dad, adding that his son eventually gave up smoking and is set to graduate from Queen's University next year.

Researchers generally agree that adolescents should be strongly discouraged from using marijuana. The Canadian Paediatric Society notes brains develop well into our 20s and that cannabis can affect both the structure and functionality of young brains. They also warn that heavy users are at risk of mental health issues later in life.

Last month, the society urged that the federal government ban sales to those younger than 18 or 19, depending on their location in Canada, to align with age limits for alcohol and tobacco sales.

It also wants to limit the concentration of THC in cannabis that 18- to 25-year-olds can purchase. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive component of marijuana.

Cathcart-Ross says parents who smoked in their youth may underestimate the strength of today's strains.

"It is much more loaded and more powerful, more detrimental to a teenager's health than previous types of marijuana 30 years ago," she cautions.

Ballantyne says she's more frightened by reports of fentanyl overdoses that are dominating headlines. Still, she describes her parenting style as "strict with a lot of communication."

"My approach is realism. I know it's out there. It's kind of like (how) sex would be in that same conversation.... I figure it's going to happen and I want them to be prepared and know that I know."

She's counting on that sticking with her girls when they're faced with temptation.

"I would say that both my kids have fear of disappointing us. So I think they always have that in the back of their mind: 'What would my mum think? What would my dad think?' I'm hopeful."



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