Experts urge parents to talk to their kids about marijuana

Brook and Andy Anderson are seen in Saratoga Springs on June 12. The couple has talked with their kids about the dangers of using marijuana and why it's harmful to their still-developing brains.

Brook and Andy Anderson are seen in Saratoga Springs on June 12. The couple has talked with their kids about the dangers of using marijuana and why it's harmful to their still-developing brains. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SARATOGA SPRINGS — Brook and Andy Anderson talk to their children — three teenagers and an 11-year-old — about marijuana. Actually, they talk to them about everything that might entice a young person. But pot is definitely on the list.

"I don't feel like anything's ever been off the table with our kids, whether it's sex or addictions or marijuana or smoking or vaping or alcohol, gambling, porn, all of it. We've talked about it very openly," said Andy Anderson, who works in human resources for a construction company.

The Saratoga Springs couple say the discussions in their blended family aren't formal. "Our kids don't do well when it's like, 'Hey, come downstairs and talk to Mom and Dad,'" they said. The best conversations come organically around the dinner table or when a child has a question.

They made it clear to their two boys and two girls that using marijuana isn't acceptable, but they've also tried to arm them with information about why it's harmful to their still-developing brains.

"If you have education, and you can talk about it and you can communicate about it, then all those 'ifs' and all that secrecy and taboo and excitement, it's just kind of not there anymore," said Brook Anderson, a coordinator for the Community That Cares in American Fork.

"We're going to tell you, 'If you do it, do not drive. You will feel different. You're not going to feel the way you normally do. There is a chance that it could go bad and you're going to have a really bad experience for quite a while,'" she said.

But the Andersons aren't naive enough to think their kids wouldn't try marijuana. And at least one of their older children has. Luckily, she said, the child didn't like it. It wasn't a good experience. The child even called home asking for help. Then, they talked about it.

"It was nice because we saw what we had created, and we could get through that moment, and then we could revisit it when things were more clear," Brook Anderson said.

"We even heard, 'You guys were right,'" Andy Anderson said.

"That was an amazing moment," Brook Anderson added.

Brook and Andy Anderson pose for photos for a story about talking to your kids about marijuana in Saratoga Springs on June 12.
Brook and Andy Anderson pose for photos for a story about talking to your kids about marijuana in Saratoga Springs on June 12. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Confusion over cannabis

Marijuana occupies a weird space in America today. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, policies around cannabis aren't as well defined, nor are its effects as well researched. Laws and social acceptability vary from place to place. Nearly half of the states allow legal recreational use. Two-thirds permit medical cannabis. Adults use it both ways. The Biden administration is working to reclassify marijuana as a less harmful drug. The Maryland governor recently pardoned an estimated 100,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes such as simple possession.

All of that sends a mixed message. And parents sometimes have a difficult time navigating that conversation with their kids, if they address it at all.

"I think that's a really huge and powerful point that needs to be made," said Heather Lewis, a substance abuse prevention coordinator with the Utah County Health Department. "Where would a parent go to find information about marijuana?"

As parents, the best way to talk to our youth about difficult topics is to start early.

–Dr. Stanley Brewer, University of Utah Health

That's where an organization called Gray Matters comes in.

While the state has an established underage drinking prevention program through the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services, it doesn't have one for cannabis. A prevention coordinator in Duchesne worked with Bonneville Communications to launch the Gray Matters campaign three years ago. Thirteen county behavioral health programs pitched in to form a coalition that mostly gets the word out at health fairs and back-to-school nights.

"We saw a gap, and so we put some funding together and started it," Lewis said.

Gray Matters doesn't have the money for slick public service announcements on TV or radio. It's seeking long-term funding from Utah's tobacco settlement money.

A 'joint' discussion

Looking at data on young people's substance use, the coalition determined that parents have the biggest influence on why kids choose to use or not.

A study published in February in the journal Substance Use & Misuse found:

  • Adolescents' use of cannabis may have intergenerational consequences, making it more likely their future offspring will use cannabis.
  • Whether or not recreational cannabis legalization influences adolescents' cannabis use may depend on their parents' cannabis use history.
  • Parenting in a state with liberalized cannabis policies may present new challenges and require that novel prevention resources be developed.

Gray Matters strives to educate parents so they can talk to their children about making the right choices for themselves. It encourages parents to have that "joint discussion," "cannabis convo," "dope dialogue," the "word on weed" or whatever you want to call it. Stanford University has a "theory-based and evidence-informed" cannabis awareness toolkit developed by educators, parents and researchers aimed at preventing middle and high school students' use of the drug.

Teenagers, especially, don't want to hear scare tactics, Lewis said. They want data and facts.

"The more parents are talking about it and telling their kids they don't want them to do it and setting clear rules around it, the better the chance the kids won't. Parents assume that other people are talking about it or their kids already know," she said.

"They're just not having the conversations, and that's what we're trying to get at. If we can arm these kids with their own useful, true information, then hopefully they'll make better, more informed decisions about whether or not to use," Lewis said.

Marijuana on the brain

It is well established that the brain undergoes a "rewiring" process that is not complete until about age 25. Marijuana use among adolescents and young adults can affect normal brain development, leading to problems in learning, memory, coordination, reaction time, judgment and impaired driving, according to the Mayo Clinic Health System. Excessive and frequent use of marijuana is associated with hallucinations, paranoia and a range of emotional problems.

"Some studies show that heavy marijuana use can actually decrease children's IQ," Dr. Stanley Brewer, a specialist in pediatric psychiatry with Intermountain Health and University of Utah Health, told KSL. "There's not very many things that can change your IQ."

Brewer said not only can marijuana use impact the developing brain, it can also harm emotional health — affecting depression, worsening anxiety and, in some cases, leading to psychosis.

"As parents, the best way to talk to our youth about difficult topics is to start early. And we know that the younger we build those relationships with our kids, the better that we are able to handle those difficult topics. Building an open and trusting relationship early on is really important," Brewer said, adding that he encourages parents to start discussing drugs with their children in their tween years.

Chronic, early cannabis use is associated with several adverse effects that can impact a person's life — in adolescence, young adulthood and beyond — including cognitive problems, such as difficulty with attention, concentration, problem-solving, learning and memory.

As the Biden administration seeks to reclassify marijuana as a less harmful drug, substance abuse professionals fear it will become more acceptable to young people. The move would downgrade marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule I drug, a category that includes heroin and LSD, to a Schedule III drug, which includes ketamine and some anabolic steroids. It would not legalize marijuana federally but would lift restrictions that currently limit research.

Lewis said she believes rescheduling cannabis would lead to more studies. At the same time, she doesn't want it to appear to be less dangerous and become more accessible to children. She said for her, it's all about being honest with kids.

"The access is there. We've got to have the information to combat that," Lewis said. "There are drug dealers all over TikTok and Snapchat. It's crazy."

Who's smoking pot?

Teens in Utah have lower rates of marijuana use than the nation as a whole.

The Student Health and Risk Prevention assessment surveys Utah students every other year in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 on substance abuse, mental health, chronic conditions, healthy lifestyles, violence and injury and other issues. The 2023 survey involved 35 school districts, 13 charter schools and one private school.

The 2023 report shows that 9.8% of Utah students in those grades have tried marijuana in their lifetime, and 4.3% used it in the past 30 days. Both of those figures have trended downward since 2019. High school seniors and sophomores had the highest lifetime usage among those four grades at 18.7% and 11.5%, respectively. Lifetime usage was 6.1% for eighth-graders and 2% for sixth-graders.

Among those who used marijuana in the past month, 68.3% smoked it, 48.7% vaped, 21.7% ate an edible such as candy or other food and 20.3% dabbed, which is inhaling from a vaporizer.

Nationally, 8.3% of eighth-graders, 17.8% of 10th-graders, and 29% of 12th-graders reported cannabis use in the past year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"We know our youth rates (in Utah) are low because we have good things in place," Lewis said. "We have good buffers in place for our youth, but we want to keep it that way and keep it strong and strengthened so that doesn't change and go backwards."

That's where parents come in.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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