AUDIO-Talking Pot With Teens In Colorado | Here & Now



When Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 back in November of 2012, they set in motion a system for adults to legally obtain recreational marijuana. But there's been less attention on how to keep it away from those for whom it's still illegal - anyone under 21. Parents and educators are struggling to fill the void, but public health campaigns are only in the planning stages.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin explores how some parents and educators are talking about marijuana with kids.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: If you're wondering whether teens are getting more marijuana since it went legal a few months ago, just ask any student like this senior outside a Denver high school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's really easy to get. I could probably get some right now.

BRUNDIN: School administrators are more concerned now, not just because students are having an easier time getting it but that they don't think it's bad for them. Like this kid going to a sports practice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I know lots of places to get it. You don't get, like, crazy when you're on it. You don't do stupid stuff. You can kind of think. It just makes you feel better.

BRUNDIN: And it's harder for parents to spot now because it comes in so many different forms according to Denver Public Schools' Mandy Copeland.

MANDY COPELAND: In terms of edibles - brownies, cookies, gummy bears, candy corn, energy drinks.

BRUNDIN: Copeland's a health educator, the only one in Denver schools empowered to talk to students confidentially about their drug use. She says it can be tough for parents to know what to do.

COPELAND: A lot of my students can talk their parents out of being concerned. You know, teens are tricky, and they can talk their way out of a lot. So it's really good for parents to be empowered and informed.

BRUNDIN: She helps parents with that too. Copeland recently took part in a panel on teens and marijuana at Denver South High, one of the few schools that's tackling the issue head on. The idea was to give parents new strategies for talking to their kids about marijuana in part by sharing some of the science of the risks.

DR. JUDITH SHLAY: Because we are in a brave new world and a new territory, and it's going to change a lot as we go along.

BRUNDIN: Also on the panel was Dr. Judith Shlay, associate director of Denver Public Health, the city's public health department. She points to research showing that teens who use marijuana heavily risk a six to eight point reduction in their adult IQ, similar to lead poisoning, and long-term trouble with abstract reasoning and decision making.

SHLAY: The brain is developing. You got one chance to develop your brain in life, and it develops through about the age of 25, and then you're set.

BRUNDIN: Studies also show marijuana increases the risk for developing psychosis or schizophrenia in some teens. That happened to Carolyn Howard's nephew who stayed for a while with her and her two sons.

CAROLYN HOWARD: They witnessed their cousin who they love dearly fall apart.

BRUNDIN: She hopes the science will be enough to persuade her two teenage boys to stay away from weed. She told them she knows their height, weight, and shoe size, but what's inside their brain...

HOWARD: I don't know if you - and you don't know if you're going to be the kid who tries it once and doesn't need it, or tries it once and feels like it's going to solve all your problems and you need to have it.

BRUNDIN: One in six kids who uses marijuana eventually becomes addicted to it according to studies cited by the National Institutes of Health. Lisa Filholm is a Denver mom who attended the panel. She has had lots of open, very candid discussions with her two teen sons about the pressures and temptations to use pot. But at the end of the day, she says, kids need firm boundaries.

LISA FILHOLM: And I think it's pretty clear. When you're an adult, figure it out for yourself. When you're a kid, nope, zero. I mean, we have a zero tolerance policy in our house, which involves urine testing at home if we think we need it. We put our foot down. No way. No way. The answer was no way. And I think that is how you have to handle it.

BRUNDIN: That kind of no-nonsense approach is exactly what Denver Health's Judith Shlay recommends. Shlay points to a regular survey of Denver students showing that what a parent thinks about marijuana is actually a huge factor in whether kids will use.

SHLAY: If they perceived that the parent approves of it, they are more than three times to four times as likely to use marijuana, alcohol. So parents, how they communicate their feelings about this is very important for kids.

BRUNDIN: But how parents feel about marijuana isn't simple. Many parents at the event don't have a problem with pot being legal. Some may even use it themselves. They just don't want their kids using it. One of their big questions: If you ever smoke pot, should you tell your kids? Several parents at the South High forum felt they should be honest. But research actually shows the opposite.

Health educator Mandy Copeland points to a study of 650 teens, which found that children whose parents stayed mum about past drug use and who delivered a strong anti-drug message were much more likely to develop anti-drug attitudes of their own.

COPELAND: Teens just don't have the capacity at this age to process that information. And I think parents often share that out of goodwill to say: I made some mistakes, hopefully you don't make these as well. But when in fact, teens really can't process it and instead say: Oh, well, my parents did it. They're functioning, healthy adult, and so I'll be OK.

BRUNDIN: Copeland doesn't think parents should lie if asked directly but could instead try to redirect the conversation back to why teen use is harmful. And Dr. Shlay points out that even if parents do have drug experience, it's likely out of date.

SHLAY: We know that the marijuana of today is not the marijuana of parents' generation when they were kids. It's much, much more potent. We don't know what's in all marijuana products, so we can't say that one puff is like four puffs before, or whatever that is.

BRUNDIN: Carol Angel says she avoided pot as a teen. She believes her 16-year-old daughter isn't using it but is aware the world has changed.

CAROL ANGEL: We have discussions about how she says that - especially since legalization - well, she may eventually try it. Just like, well, eventually, I want to try alcohol. And I say, yes, not now. Your brain's developing, and it's illegal. And she goes, oh, yeah, mom, I know.

BRUNDIN: Carol Angel was pleased to leave the panel armed with a new argument for why her daughter should trust her when she says at least wait to try marijuana because it's not a decision the teen brain is equipped to make.

ANGEL: There's two parts of the brains. There's the impulses, and then there's the breaks. And when you're a teen, the impulses are really strong and the breaks aren't very well developed. I thought that was a great way to - I loved that part. And it's a good way for me to discuss it with my daughter.

BRUNDIN: That's the kind of conversation Dr. Judy Shlay would approve of. Whatever approach parents take, the end goal is to keep kids safe.

SHLAY: If the kid's at a party and it's 2 in the morning, and if they've had this conversation with their parent, they will be able to call up and say, I'm in an unsafe situation. I need you to come and get me.

BRUNDIN: Shlay says the parent needs to get up and go. Yeah, they're annoyed, but no questions asked. And wait until the next day when they can go back to these tough conversations when teens might be more ready to listen. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver.

YOUNG: And tomorrow, we'll hear about how a pilot treatment program at one Colorado high school is trying to help teenage substance abusers quit. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.