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Marty Williams, an internist in Danbury, Connecticut, had always been close with his son Greg. He was a coach for the boy's baseball and basketball teams, and loved skiing with Greg on family trips. So Marty wasn't alarmed when he found a marijuana pipe the 16-year-old had hidden in an old stove in the basement, even though his wife, Micheline, also a doctor, was quite upset. "I thought she was overreacting," he says. "After all, kids experiment." But Greg was way past experimenting. He had started smoking pot when he was only 13—and got hooked before he knew it. "I'd wake up every morning wondering how I was going to get high," he says. "I'd smoke in the woods after school and at parties on weekends. I didn't have that shut-off switch. I would use up everything until it was gone."
By the time Marty and Micheline found the pipe, Greg was abusing not only pot but also alcohol and prescription meds. Sensing a growing problem, his parents took away the car keys at one point and banned friends from the house after things started disappearing. Greg agreed to outpatient drug counseling, but he only grew more distant and defiant, paying lip service to therapy while still getting stoned behind their backs. The summer after graduating, Greg landed in the emergency room when he wrapped his car around a tree in a drug-induced haze. For Marty, it was a terrifying and humbling moment. "Greg was all bloody, but still so angry and difficult. He was like a monster," says Marty. "Looking back, I wished I had intervened sooner. But my daughter, Natalie, who's older than Greg, had smoked pot and never had a problem."
The Williamses' nightmare is a cautionary tale for all parents unsure of how to talk to their kids about marijuana, where to draw the line, and what to do if they cross it. I have four children, ages 15 to 22, and it's something I've worried about since their early high school years. Whether we like it or not, there's an excellent chance today's teens will toke up. After more than a decade of decline, pot smoking among adolescents is growing once again. According to the University of Michigan's annual survey of 50,000 middle and high school students, 16 percent of 8th-graders have smoked marijuana, 32 percent of 10th-graders, and 42 percent of 12th-graders.
What's behind the increase? "There's been a rapid erosion of anti-marijuana attitudes in our society," says Tom Hedrick, a founding member of Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA). "A lot of what kids hear today is not to worry." Fourteen states have legalized medical marijuana, and this fall Californians will vote on whether to do the same for recreational use. From movies like Hot Tub Time Machine to TV's Weeds to Michael Phelps' marijuana moment, there's a constant message being sent to teens: Everybody must get stoned, and it's all right. No wonder survey results show that only 44 percent of 8th-graders perceive pot as posing a "great risk" to their health, down from more than 50 percent in 2004. "This is the perfect storm that could lead to a tremendous explosion in marijuana use," says Hedrick. "Parents have reason to be concerned." All this, plus the fact that pot is nearly three times more potent than the herb I inhaled decades ago.
While I never smoked or drank in high school—and that's the standard I unsuccessfully tried to hold my children to—the twentysomething me did use marijuana in college, and I'm here to tell you I never fell victim to reefer madness. I've spent most of my energy trying to steer my kids away from alcohol, which was their drug of choice in high school, and which I consider a bigger threat. At the same time, the fiftysomething me shudders when I hear stories in my little suburb of teens like Greg for whom pot was a gateway to self-destruction.
My children aren't totally out of the woods yet, but I hope I've done some things right teaching them the importance of moderation in all things—including partying. Most experts agree that whatever your personal feelings about weed, parents need to know the facts and get past the hype and hysteria. Keep talking to your kids, and keep an eye out for warning signs. Even if they do light up, you'll increase the odds that pot won't be a serious problem for them, but merely a rite of passage.
One reason many people have such a hard time discussing marijuana with their kids is that the case against it—at least compared with other drugs—isn't so clear cut. Pot is the least addictive of substances most often abused by teens, considerably less so than alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. Even parents who strongly disapprove of weed may put up with it because the effects on their kids are fairly benign. "Marijuana calms most people down and puts them to sleep," says Ken C. Winters, professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research. "Alcohol makes people more violent and aggressive, and creates far more havoc."
On the other hand, pot can be extremely habit-forming, even among so-called casual users, according to Liz Jorgensen, a substance abuse therapist in Ridgefield, Connecticut. "In my decades of practice, I've found that very few kids will drink every day, but there's a considerable minority who will smoke every day," she says. And while it's a myth that marijuana users inevitably progress to hard drugs, studies have shown that very few teens develop serious drug habits without trying pot—and alcohol—first.
So how worried should parents be when they stumble across a pipe or other paraphernalia—or, like my wife and me, see a butane lighter fall out of their son's pocket? (Note: We knew he didn't smoke tobacco.) If there's a history of addiction, depression, or bipolar disorder in your extended family, you need to worry. Research has linked dependence on pot to genetic factors. If your child is hyperactive, anxious, or a compulsive risk-taker, you need to worry. Drugs are often a way for troubled teens to self-medicate. In a landmark California study of 100 kids who were tracked from ages 3 to 18, those who became the heaviest pot users had suffered from behavioral problems for years. Even in early elementary school, they coped poorly with stress, had low self-esteem, made few friends, and were often ostracized by classmates. In other words, dysfunction led to drug abuse, not the other way around.
Greg Williams was a case in point. He was diagnosed with hyperactivity as a toddler. His parents believed he'd outgrown it; after all, Greg did well enough in school and his instructors never complained. But inside, he says, "I was crippled with fear. I felt separate and disconnected from everyone else. I don't know why—there was no big trauma in my life. But there was always this spinning in my head, and pot was the only thing that stopped it. I liked what it did to me. It numbed the pain."
If there's one ironclad rule for parents when it comes to pot, it's this: Do everything you can to postpone that crucial moment when your kid takes his first hit. Research shows that the earlier children start smoking marijuana, the greater the likelihood of addiction down the line. "Over half of adult addicts had used pot by 15," says Hedrick. "That's why parents need to keep your children away from it for as long as possible."
The fact that more kids are starting younger is particularly worrisome when you consider the stuff they're inhaling. Potency has hit an all-time high: The average concentration of THC, marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient, is now more than 10 percent, compared with less than 4 percent in 1983, and experts believe the numbers will likely rise over the next several years. At the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project, where thousands of samples of seized marijuana are tested annually, THC levels have already exceeded 30 percent.
There's also growing evidence of a toll on the adolescent brain. Yale researcher Alecia Schweinsburg, PhD, has done the first scans comparing the brain function of two groups of 16- to 18-year-olds—those who have abstained from pot and heavy users (kids who smoke at least every other day) who stopped for one month. While both groups performed similarly on memory tests, scans show that chronic smokers had to utilize far more areas of the brain to get the same results. Schweinsburg intends to follow up when the subjects reach 20, and the prognosis doesn't look good. Similar studies on alcohol that have already been completed show that by the time they turned 20, heavy drinkers were unable to retrieve as many memories as they could just two years earlier.
Sandra Carcamo, a member of PDFA's parent advisory committee who lives in Davidsonville, Maryland, knows the research well. Tenacious about keeping her children away from pot, Sandra's method has been to get in their faces early and often. When her oldest daughter skipped classes in 10th grade, Sandra personally introduced her to the school police officer so he'd have a better shot at catching her the next time. Sandra warned her daughter that if it happened again, she'd take vacation time and spend a week following her to each and every class. And for good measure, she insisted on meeting the girl's friends whenever she went out with them, making the girls come into the house, interviewing them, and taking down their cell phone numbers. "I met with resistance, but I told my daughter she had to play by the rules or stay home," says Sandra. "So far, we've had no problems."
Jorgensen recommends that parents stop and listen to their tweens' and teens' music and use that as a starting point for discussion. "This hip-hop they love is a lot about ganja and weed and running from the cops," she says, adding that it's a parent's job to counteract those messages. Not long ago I walked into the kitchen and found my 15-year-old doing her AP history homework while humming along to a tune on the radio, "Smoke Two Joints" by Sublime. ("I smoke two joints in the morning/I smoke two joints at night/I smoke two joints in the afternoon/It makes me feel all right.") She's a very good kid, and unlike her three older brothers, she's had no pot or alcohol issues. But I still felt I had to say something. I asked her if she knew that Sublime's front man had died of a heroin overdose. "I know, Dad," she said, rolling her eyes. Discussion over, but point made.
Trying to teach moderation to my kids has been the toughest challenge I've faced as a parent. If I'd had my way with the boys, there would have been absolutely no pot while they were in high school. I didn't start until college and smoked my last joint well before they were born. I have, as the experts say, modeled the right behavior, and while I'm confident it's the best defense in the long run, I've certainly had my moments of doubt. Though they're good students, awesome athletes, and hard workers with part-time and summer jobs, my guys love to party. Too much teen testosterone. Whenever my wife and I found evidence they'd broken the rules, we'd confront, lecture, lay down the law. "We get it, Dad. We're sorry. Honest." Then it would happen again and the cycle repeated, an endless war of attrition. And even though they're legally adults, I know I can still turn up the heat if necessary—maybe take away the car or refuse to pay auto insurance, lock up the savings account or balk at the tuition bill for the next semester of college. "They may seem like harsh measures," says Jorgensen. "But the real message to your kids is, 'I love you so much.'"
I believe my children are getting the message, despite that telltale lighter. For me the most crucial finding in the California survey was that the healthiest teens weren't those who had never smoked pot. Abstainers were found to have almost as many problems as serious abusers, and were described as "anxious," "emotionally constricted," and "lacking in social skills." The happiest and least stressed group were those the researchers called "experimenters," teens who'd smoked pot anywhere from a few times to as often as once a month.
But how to tell whether your kid is an experimenter or a hard case? The Web is full of sites describing the symptoms of chronic abuse. The PDFA, for example, lists 63 of them. Some parents find such lists helpful; to me, they're often so long and generalized they could describe almost any teen (the 16th item on the PDFA list is "loud, obnoxious behavior," the 21st is "silent, non-communicative behavior"). While all three of my party-hearty sons worried me, one worried me more, and I worked harder with him, talking, punishing, grounding, getting him into counseling. For months I'd wake up at 4 a.m., fearing the worst. And then he found something he loved, something that gave him purpose, and all the mess we'd been mired in receded, almost overnight. Suddenly, he was too busy acting on his dream to waste time on nonsense.
The same thing happened to Greg Williams, although he needed a rehab program to clean up and start over. The day after he totaled the car in July 2001, Marty and Micheline got him into an inpatient hospital for substance abuse before sending him to the Caron Treatment Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. "Of course I didn't want to go," he recalls. "But what changed my mind was when Natalie turned to me and said, 'Greg, I'd rather you go to jail than come back home, because at least that way I'd know you were safe.'"
After a monthlong stay, he went on to attend Quinnipiac University—where he graduated with a 3.75 grade point average—and started living life in full. "I used to say there was all this stuff I was going to do, like snowboarding, bungee jumping, or going to Europe, which never happened because I was too stoned to get up off the couch," he says. "Now I've done it all, and more." At 26, Greg's found his calling as co-director of Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families, a statewide organization strengthening prevention, treatment, and recovery support services. Using peer-to-peer support, they help adolescents and families with drug and alcohol problems connect with others who have lived through and recovered from the nightmare of addiction. "I'm grateful beyond words for what my family and friends did to help me when I was finally ready to listen," he says. "I owe everything to them."
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.