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High Season: Teens and Marijuana Use

After years of decline, more kids are smoking weed. They're also lighting up younger, and fewer believe there's a serious downside. If you're not already talking to your children about pot, it's time to start.

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.