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Pass the weed, Dad

Parents are smoking dope with their kids. What are they thinking?

MARNI JACKSON November 7 2005
Cover

Pass the weed, Dad

Parents are smoking dope with their kids. What are they thinking?

MARNI JACKSON November 7 2005

Pass the weed, Dad

Cover

MARNI JACKSON

Parents are smoking dope with their kids. What are they thinking?

“IT WAS A LITTLE WEIRD, seeing my parents stoned,” Tom confesses. The Toronto high school student was describing the first time he’d smoked marijuana—at home last spring, just after turning 17, when he shared a joint with his hard-working, middle-class parents.

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“IT WAS A LITTLE WEIRD, seeing my parents stoned,” Tom confesses. The Toronto high school student was describing the first time he’d smoked marijuana—at home last spring, just after turning 17, when he shared a joint with his hard-working, middle-class parents. “But I had an amazing, fantastic connection with my dad, and it was a good experience for all of us. They showed me how to take the seeds and stems out of the pot. Then, basically, we ate.

My mom ordered sushi, and we made a mountain of nachos. It kind of felt like a rite of passage.”

After his family initiation, Tom bought six or seven joints of his own for a camping trip, “and that was cool too.” But his new girlfriend didn’t approve of pot, or him on it. “She said there was this separation thing that happened whenever I smoked.” So Tom gave it up, even though his older sister had just given him a nice handmade pipe for his birthday. “But my other sister could care less about pot. Lots of kids try it and don’t like it. I think it’s totally individual.”

Nicole, who maintained a scholarship throughout university and has now graduated, grew up in a household where pot smoking was as casually present as wine with dinner. “Marijuana was so integrated into our social life that it didn’t seem to make sense to hide it,” says her father, a lawyer. “So we didn’t. She began smoking pot when she was around 16. This was in the nineties, when the police were pretty aggressive about it, so we thought that it was safer for her to smoke at home than in the streets. And then when she was in college, there were definitely times when she and I would smoke a joint together. Or I might buy some dope and give her some.”

“But lately, we’ve made some new rules. No smoking dope together. No tobacco in the house. We are rethinking things in general.”

He pauses. “Yes, we were open about smoking pot around her. But was it a good idea? I don’t know.”

Nicole, now 24, says she’s “always believed it was a good thing that it wasn’t hidden or taboo. I’ve seen a lot of sheltered kids who got into it at 12 or 13, as rebellion. I wasn’t interested till later. I tried it and thought, ‘Hey, this is good!’ It was relaxing, and fun, and it numbs you out, which can be a good thing.”

MOST PARENTS, of course, aren’t sitting around the family bong with their kids. They go along with the authorities who view marijuana as a drug with addictive potential that turns kids into over-snacking, undermotivated, learning-impaired couch potatoes. But the 1.5 million Canadian adults who, according to the Canadian Medical Association, smoke marijuana recreationally might not agree. In fact, a recent Canadian Addiction Survey found that 630,000 of us aged 15 and older smoke cannabis every day. And among middle-aged Canadians, dope use in the past year has increased from 1.4 per cent in 1994 to 8.4 per cent in 2004.

Perhaps as a consequence of this ongoing boomer buzz, some parents feel a zero-tolerance policy with teenagers simply doesn’t work and may only increase the

allure of pot. They would rather keep the lines of communication open, talk to their children about the genuine risks of individual drugs, and help them develop their own good judgment about drug use—whether it’s tobacco, alcohol or marijuana.

Sharing a joint with your 16or 17-yearold may be pushing it. Nevertheless, parents who talk about “drugs” as if they’re all the same, equating pot with more lethal substances like cocaine or crystal meth—a popular form of amphetamine that is wildly addictive and blatantly destructive—run the risk of not being listened to at all. When we

demonize drugs, ironically we tend to empower the drugs, rather than our kids.

Families have changed since the days of Father Knows Best (the equivalent show today would be “Father Tokes Best”). Many parents are veterans of the counterculture who did a lot more than inhale in the sixties. For some, marijuana was just an ambient phase, like black-light posters. Others have grown up into successful, civilized, recreational pot smokers who don’t want to lie to their kids. They consider the moderate use of pot to be a relatively benign activity—and certainly better than drinking eight beers and getting behind the wheel of a car. Binge drinking, which has become epidemic among college students, can also be fatal, but no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose (although it carries its own health risks,

affects driving ability, and has certainly caused repeated screenings of bad movies).

One thing is clear, though: regardless of whether their parents are strict or permissive, most kids will try cannabis sooner or later. By the time they exit their teen years, the Canadian Addiction Survey reports, 70 per cent of them will have smoked a joint at some point—if not in the past hour. Among everyone who’s tried it, 18 per cent smoke daily.

Tom and Nicole waited longer than most teenagers to experiment with marijuana. The average age of first use has gone down,

‘When she was in college, there were definitely times when she and I would smoke a joint together’

PHOTOGRAPH BY KOUROSH KESHIRI

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Drugs, which focuses many of its public awareness programs on the evils of smoking pot while largely ignoring the scourge of crystal meth use in North America. And it’s one more sign that marijuana is not about to be weeded out of the culture any time soon.

If this is the case, what sort of limits should parents offer, when their 13-year-old comes home from a party to announce—because they encourage the kid to be open—that he has just smoked his first joint? Of course, they turn off David Letterman, pour a glass of wine, sit down and say, “We don’t want you smoking marijuana, sweetheart. You’re too young.” Then he says, with a red-eyed glare, “Why not? You do.”

How does a parent respond to that? With

‘We call them Jell-O-heads. Boys who can’t really think. My son and his friends just seem sedated.’

from 14.5 years in 1995 to 13.7 in 2003. In fact, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports that five per cent of school kids have tried pot before the end of Grade 6. (Can the preschool doobie be far behind? Hemp soothers?) Twenty-eight per cent of students who’ve finished Grade 9 will have smoked pot in the past year. Roughly the same percentage, it’s worth noting, have never tried any drugs, including alcohol or tobacco, and—before we get too hysterical—47 per cent of Canadian high school students “strongly disapprove of regular marijuana smoking.”

Nevertheless, cannabis remains the No. 1 illicit drug in North America. And its reputation may be shifting, as science uncovers new medical potential for the cannabinoids that are the active ingredients in marijuana. Last month, a Saskatchewan study reported that a cannabis-like substance injected into rats caused new nerve-cell growth in the hippocampus, suggesting the possibility that marijuana might actually improve certain brain functions—contrary to its reputation as a memory-shredder. (It should be added that the rats were getting a drug 100 times more powerful than THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high.) A study published in a recent issue of the journal Nature also suggested that marijuana may “more closely resemble an antidepressant than a drug of abuse.” And, of course, the much-debated medical benefits of cannabis for people suffering with chronic pain, AIDS or multiple sclerosis are already well known.

Marijuana is also firmly embedded in popular culture, from the slim green leaves featured on the cover of Willie Nelson’s recent CD (reggae, of course), to the phenomenon of “bud porn” (coffee-table books featuring photos of dewy, resin-oozing exotic strains of cannabis), to Weeds, the new series currently airing on Showcase. It stars MaryLouise Parker as a freshly widowed mother who supports her family by dealing pot in

her upscale Californian suburb. (“But not to kids,” she explains, setting the moral high bar of the show.)

The series traffics in lame stereotypes (her suppliers are a trash-talkin’ black family whose mother cleans and bags her product at the kitchen table). But it flies in the face of George W. Bush’s $3 5-billion War on

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a lecture on how dope impairs concentration and learning, and may not be the best thing for the lungs? Or with a mini-joint and some Neil Young on the CD player?

THE POT (SMOKER)

CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK.

“When it comes to my own son, I’m totally protective—I veer right into Reefe?'Madness territory,” says Ray, a Toronto father and regular grass smoker who was introduced to hash at the age of 15 by his own, scientist father. (Note: not even the most nonchalant pot smoker would agree to be named here. Apparently no one, 15 or 55, wants to be known as a pothead—or arrested. So the names and some identifying details in these stories have been changed.)

“When my son asked if I smoked dope, I simply lied and said no,” Ray continues. “But his older sister was with us. She knew that I smoked, and said, ‘What are you talking about, dad? Of course you do!” But Ray’s double standard is just fine with his son; kids don’t necessarily want their parents to be cool. The writer and film director Nora Ephron once observed that if children are given the choice between a happy, gratified parent off boogie-boarding in Hawaii, or a suicidal parent in the next room, they’ll pick the miserable, available one every time. The baby boomer pursuit of pleasure and openness may have produced parents who resemble party-hearty older siblings rather than helpful, boring authority figures. “Even though in the real world, marijuana may occupy an unclear, grey zone,” says Bob Glossop, a spokesman for the Vanier Institute for the Family, “one of the roles of the parent is to simplify their kids’ world, and offer limits.”

Some parents are open about their dope smoking while drawing firm lines about drug use for their kids. Patrick is a Toronto writer, poet, parent and cannabis fan. He finds a joint in the late afternoon helps him write. “When my son confronted me and said, ‘But you do it,’ I said, ‘Yes, I smoke pot, but I also earn a living. You are 12 and in Grade 8 and you shouldn’t smoke marijuana.” Patrick mostly confines his habit to his workspace, but he has always smoked in the house. “My line with my two sons was clear. I told them, ‘If you want to fin-

ish your education, don’t smoke weed.’ It tends to de-motivate kids regarding school. I know it brought out my own rebellion, and made me want to quit school and fight the system.”

Patrick’s relationship to marijuana goes back 27 years, when his stepson, then six, entered his life. “The vibe around pot smok-

ing was different then; it was a more legitimate activity. I smoked in the house, but I explained to my stepson that it was an herb—coltsfoot—that I had to smoke, for my lungs.” He sounds a bit sheepish here. “So, yeah, it was a lie, but not entirely; it was an herbal supplement.”

His stepson grew up to become a very conservative adult, and a non-smoker, but “surprisingly tolerant” of marijuana. “Coltsfoot has become a kind of joke between us,” says Patrick.

When he had his own sons, they both ignored his advice and took up dope smoking around 13. His eldest, Richard, then started dealing; he encountered some violence, got robbed, and finally decided that the dope life was not a good one. “Although I do think he honed his business skills when he was selling,” Patrick muses. “He was making good money.” Gradually, Richard gave up dope. “He saw that all his friends were

dropping out of school, and he didn’t want to. He’s now in university, studying philosophy, doing well, and he rarely smokes pot. He’d rather argue about philosophy now, which drives me crazy, because . . .’’—and here the truly committed pot smoker can be detected—“it’s so damn rational.”

But Patrick remembers his sons’ drug

years as a “worrying time. I was really concerned.” And he’s not alone. Parents worry about the dangers associated with the criminal aspect of marijuana—which is, after all, still an illegal substance, carrying a maximum fine of $ 1,000 and/or six months in jail for simple possession. The government may be pondering the wisdom of spending millions on imprisoning cannabis offenders when gunshot deaths seem to be everywhere, and white collar crime flies under the radar. With 69 per cent of Canadians favouring decriminalization of pot possession, according to a February 2003 poll, the feds have taken a step to acknowledging the country’s dope use. Last year, they introduced a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis. But it’s currently sitting with a Commons committee and is unlikely to become law before the next federal election.

As they step out onto their back decks to have a quick after-dinner toke, noticing that thick feeling in their lungs again, parents also worry about the long-term effects of marijuana on a 13-year-old’s developing mind and body. (Many experts believe regular pot smoking damages the lungs, though

ON THE WEB Should Canada loosen laws governing marijuana use and possession? Cast your vote, www.macleans.ca

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there’s debate over whether it’s more or less harmful than tobacco.) And then there’s the school issue: chronic use is linked to declining school work and dropping out.

ONE TOKE TOO MANY OVER THE LINE.

Young people who have already smoked marijuana for a decade are discovering what some of their parents know—it is more habit-forming than its reputation suggests. Eric, who works as a fly-fishing guide near Vancouver, is 19 and has been smoking pot daily—except for the brief periods when he’s tried to stop—for about seven years. He lives in a province where more than half the population has tried pot and many are regular users.

Eric’s parents were both involved in the political upheaval of the sixties. His mother once spent a night in jail for possession of pot, and, Eric says, “my father told me that he tried everything once, which I tend to believe.” Eric’s dad, Dmitri, is now a criminal psychologist who is in favour of the legalization of marijuana—although he no longer smokes it himself, and dearly wishes his son would stop too. Despite his liberal perspective, Dmitri views the heavy pot smoking among his son’s circle as “insidiously costly.” Eric—whom his father proudly describes as a “beautiful, athletic, creative, sensitive young man”—couldn’t agree more.

“I would like to quit, a lot,” Eric says. “And every single friend I know who smokes heavily wants to stop too. Dope is okay in moderation, but when your life starts to revolve around it every day, it becomes like any other addiction. You lose your motivation. Your senses get numbed. And you don’t get out of life what you could if you weren’t stoned all the time. It was fun to party at 14. But the older you get, the more you kind of want to pull up your socks and get your life going. I’ve quit a few times, but it’s hard. I don’t even have to go out and buy it—it’s all around me.”

Bestselling American health and wellness

author Dr. Andrew Weil could not be called anti-pot by any stretch. And the 2004 edition of his book, From Chocolate to Morphine, is an unhysterical guide to a wide spectrum of mind-altering drugs. But Weil is very clear about the risks of habitual use. “Marijuana dependence can be sneaky in its development,” he writes. “It doesn’t appear overnight like cigarette addiction... but rather builds up over a long time. The main danger of smoking marijuana is simply that it will get away from you, becoming more and more of a repetitive habit and less and less of a useful way of changing consciousness.” Elizabeth Ridgely is a Toronto therapist and executive director of the George Hull Centre for Children and Families, which has a substance-abuse program open to heavy pot smokers. “The most important thing for parents to know is that marijuana is stronger than it used to be in the Woodstock days,” she says. “People who use it habitually use it to soothe themselves, and

when they stop, they can feel agitated and anxious. It can really mess up a kid. But kids are surprised to hear this—families aren’t having those kinds of conversations about drugs.”

DREAMS GONE UP IN SMOKE.

‘Yes, we were open about smoking pot around her. But was it a good idea? I don’t know.’

“We call them Jell-O-heads,” says Tanya, a 52-year-old photo-archivist who lives in Toronto. “Boys who can’t really think.” She is referring to her 19-year-old son and his friends, who regularly smoke dope on the third floor of her house. “When they come in the door and go up the stairs, it’s like having large cedar trees in the house. Everything shakes and rattles. Then they go up to

my son’s room, and the music starts, and the laughing.”

Tanya is a former pot smoker who now considers dope a “real time-waster. I wasted so many years as a hippie, smoking. But it was part of the language back then. It was social, it was anti-authority, it was very sensual. I don’t see that with my son’s crowd. They just seem sedated. They use a bong, and the drug is really clean and refined and incredibly potent—it’s not the ditch weed we used to smoke. It doesn’t give you the big fuzzy body stone we used to get from dope. They just get high. I think it dumbs my kid down. The thing that bothers me is that he doesn’t seem present when he’s stoned.

“My son gave me some of his dope once,” says Tanya. “I thought it would be a good way to, you know, talk about it. I didn’t want to smoke, so I ate it, and suddenly my eyelids had no function—I mean, I would close my eyes and it would just go on forever. When will this be over, I thought.” After some ineffective drug counselling, her son eventually cut down on his own. “Now he says he only smokes it to get to sleep, as a sedative.” She laughs. “Remember when we thought smoking marijuana made us more aware?”

A friend of Tanya’s, a Gestalt therapist, has a theory about the downside of heavy pot smoking for teenagers. She considers it a “dream-stealer. At the age when they should be generating their own fantasies and dreams, a drug can usurp that. The visions belong to the drug, not to them.”

SMOKESCREEN FOR OTHER PROBLEMS.

Mario, a handsome, athletic 23-year-old, went the whole nine yards with drugs and teen rebellion. He started smoking dope, taking acid and staying out till 4 a.m. when he was 12 and 13. He and his friends would get stoned and go chase skunks through the park in the middle of the night, until somebody called the cops. “If there was a rule, he would break it,” remembers his father. He had separated from the boy’s mother and was living with his new partner. The separation was civil, and Mario and his

younger brother, Paul, were welcome in both households.

“My mother didn’t hide the fact that she would smoke around the house occasionally,” Mario says. “But she didn’t glamorize it. If you’re going to have a parent who smokes pot, she went about it the right way. Kids are supersensitive to anything that’s hypocritical, especially in their parents. It breaks trust.” But his parents worried about the effect Mario’s behaviour was having on Paul. They asked him to honour one final rule—no smoking pot in the house, or around his younger brother. When Mario broke that one, his father asked him to move out.

So at the age of 15, for almost two years, Mario was out on the street, couch-surfing at friends’ houses and living for a time in a hostel for street kids. He quit school after three weeks of Grade 9. “We gave him money to buy toiletries, which he probably spent on dope,” his father says. They stayed in touch, though, and finally his mother said, “That’s enough,” and let him move in with her. He went back to high school and graduated. He reconnected with the rest of his family, was accepted at Queen’s and got a degree in anthropology, and by his late teens had lost interest in pot.

Mario now looks back on those years with hard-earned intelligence and insight. “As far as our family problems go, I think dope was more of a flashpoint than the real issue. My pot smoking was an abrasive thing, and my parents concentrated on that. And it did have tangible fallout—in terms of punctuality and procrastination and school. You know, if a kid isn’t getting his work done, and he’s smoking dope, it’s an easy equation to make. But there’s usually more than dope going on.”

Poor parents—they always seem to miss the point. And what has become the ultimate parental sin now that pot is out of the closet? Smoking cigarettes. Mario also has a sister, Lucy. At the age of 11, she came home one night to find a dinner party in progress, and her non-smoking mother sitting back with a lit cigarette in hand. “She went ballistic,” recalls the mother, “and after everyone left, Lucy came down and sprayed the room with perfume. It was a big deal—kids hate it when their parents do anything self-destructive.”

So, a memo to all you law-breaking, pot smoking parents: if you want your kids not to worry, just say no—to tobacco. li1]