There’s been a big change in peoples’ attitudes about using marijuana, and it’s a change that may affect parents all over America. One recent poll discovered that 46 percent of Americans support legalizing small amounts for personal use. That’s more than twice the percentage the pollsters found 12 years ago when they last asked the same question. By early 2009, 13 states had legalized marijuana sales to people with doctors’ prescriptions, and the U.S. Justice Department recently announced that it would no longer conduct raids on distributors of medical marijuana in those states.
What does this trend mean for parents? If the nation’s drug laws are eased, if law enforcement pulls back, that will shift most of the responsibility for keeping kids off drugs to parents.
It’s been said that fighting drug use is a three-legged stool: prevention programs to caution kids about experimenting with drugs; law enforcement programs to stop the sale of drugs; and treatment programs to help those who fall through the cracks. If drug enforcement laws are repealed, that will leave it up to prevention and treatment. And when it comes to drug use, there’s an old saying that is true in so many areas of life: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
One father, a magazine editor, discovered the truth in that old saying when his son, Nic, started using marijuana at 12 years old and then graduated to powdered and crack cocaine, Ecstasy, heroin, and to what became his favorite drug, crystal methamphetamine. In 2005, the father, David Sheff, wrote a best-selling book, Beautiful Boy, about the effects of Nic’s drug use and his frequent attempts at rehabilitation and subsequent relapses.
Nic Sheff recently told CNN that fourteen years after first experimenting with pot, he’s still trying to beat his addiction to methamphetamine. “I am isolated, alone, disgusted with everything and, most especially, myself,” he said, adding that he suffered from “bouts of wanting to throw myself off a tall building.”
The Sheff’s stories are a good object lesson for parents with kids who are coming of age. The bad news is that kids start early today. Twenty percent of kids have experimented with illegal drugs by the eighth grade; by the time they reach the twelfth grade, roughly half of all kids have used illegal drugs.
The important years are the teen years. The good news is that if you can keep your kids off drugs until they are 21, you are virtually assured that they will never use them. That means that kids are at risk for almost an entire decade, and most of those years are spent home with the family.
If your kids reach 21 without using drugs, they will have had the opportunity to spend the most important years of their lives preparing for productive work and for building the kind of character they will need to lead their own families. On the other hand, if your kids slip into drug addiction, there’s a good chance they will spend the most important years of their lives, like Nic Sheff, in and out of drug treatment, focused on merely staying clean rather than preparing for life.
What can you do to keep your kids off drugs? When it comes to drugs, you may think that the main influences on kids are the movies they see, the songs they hear, and the friends they keep. There’s some truth in that. But surveys show that you are the most the most important influence when it comes to your kids experimenting with drugs.
A 2002 survey by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that many parents thought they had little influence in steering their kids away from drugs. But the teens themselves told the researchers otherwise. In a 2000 survey, for example, the Center had found that “half of teens who had not tried marijuana credited their parents with their decision.”
How can you help? Here are two suggestions that should guide your efforts. The first suggestion is to become informed about what’s going on in the world of illegal drugs. If half the kids in twelfth grade have experimented with drugs, your kids are in effect surrounded by the drug culture.
How do you find solid information you can use to talk with your kids about drugs? There are two good places to start. One is The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a private group of communications professionals dedicated to helping teens reject drug abuse. Another is the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which features links to web sites that offer good advice and information.
The second suggestion is to discuss the drug issue openly with your kids. The best place to discuss the subject is the dinner table. Your mere presence each night has a powerful effect on your kids. The dinner table is often the one occasion each day that brings together the whole family. The Center at Columbia found that teens who ate family dinners infrequently were three times more likely to use marijuana than those who had family dinners five or more times a week.
How do you bring up the issue? There are many things that can be used to initiate a conversation, such as drug-related incidents that happen at school, pop stars who enter rehab, or news accounts of accidents involving drugs.
How responsible are you for the decisions your teenage kids make? David Sheff looked back on his son’s addictions and wondered what more he could have done to keep his son away from drugs. Drug counselors, he said, tell parents that it’s not their fault. “But who among us,” he wrote, “doesn’t believe that we could have done something differently that would have helped?”
In the end, what counts will be the decisions your kids make. But if you choose to make the commitment of time and energy it takes to influence that important decision, you will have done all you can do to help your kids find their way to happy, productive, drug-free lives.
Tim Lanigan is a retired speechwriter who worked for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from 1998 to 2004.