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High Season: Teens and Marijuana Use

Talk. Listen. Repeat As Needed.

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.