Washington state’s legalization of marijuana last week was a professional triumph for Alison Holcomb, a Seattle attorney who wrote the law. But the legal victory created a personal dilemma: how to discuss the no-longer illicit drug with her 4-year-old son. “He’s a sponge right now, and I don’t know if he’s yet at the age when I can have a meaningful conversation with him about it,” says Holcomb, the drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington. “He has never seen me smoke anything. I probably won’t do it in front of him.”
With marijuana now legal for adults over 21 in Washington and Colorado, Holcomb is one of many parents trying to figure out what to say to – and do around – their kids as a result. Most moms and dads think nothing of sipping a glass of wine at the family dinner table. Now that lighting up a joint in the Evergreen State should no more raise alarm than an after-work gin and tonic, will parents take the same no-big-deal attitude toward both? As moms and dads figure out how to negotiate marijuana’s transition from illegal drug to just another ho-hum way to unwind, TIME sought advice from experts on how to incorporate pot into parenting (the full magazine story is available to subscribers here).
“In some families, it’s possible for parents to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana or both and still have their teens make good decisions,” says Roger Roffman, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington (UW) who has studied interventions for high schoolers who use pot. “In principle, if parents can drink alcohol or smoke marijuana responsibly in front of teens, they can also do it responsibly in front of young kids.”
Jean Robinson, a Seattle businesswoman who owns a construction management firm and chaired New Approach Washington, the campaign to pass what was known as Initiative 502, said she now sees no difference between getting high or drinking alcohol in front of her daughter, a 19-year-old nursing student. “I would use in front of her in the same way that I would have a drink in front of her,” she says. But Robinson says she has tried to ensure that her daughter respects the law, telling her that she stopped using before becoming a mom and warning her not to smoke until she turns 21.
The ACLU’s Holcomb thinks the new law presents an opportunity for parents to talk about marijuana use with their children. “This is a great time for parents to sit down with their kids and explain the fact that just because something is no longer a crime does not mean it’s necessarily good for you,” she says. “We need to have a heart-to-heart and say, ‘Please don’t do this until you’re older and the risk is less for you.’” To bolster that point, UW’s Roffman advises stressing that research has found that heavy marijuana use during the teen years is associated with poor academic performance. “When the law was changed,” he notes, “it was not changed for kids and teens.”
Rick Steves, the Washington-based travel guru, talked about marijuana with his children long before the recent laws. In 2003, when Steves joined the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), he invited the group’s president to his home 30 minutes outside of Seattle to discuss pot and pot law with his children. “I wanted to explain to my kids that this is not pro-drugs but pro-civil liberties,” says Steves, whose children are now 21 and 25. “I told them this is something adults should be able to do, but it is not any more appropriate for kids than driving a car or using a chainsaw.” Steves tried to initiate a public debate about marijuana four years ago when he hosted a television program produced by the ACLU called “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation.” Only one of Seattle’s three local networks agreed to run it. “The idea was to talk to frightened mothers and fathers in the suburbs,” says Steves, whose views about marijuana were shaped by his exposure to more tolerant European countries. “We wanted to get a conversation started.” He thinks the time may now be right to revive the show.
For parents who do choose to smoke around the house, Inga Manskopf, a prevention specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, urges that they “think about how their marijuana use is being construed by kids. I personally think it’s a bad idea to use marijuana in front of your kids,” she said. Manskopf also cautions parents against lighting up with their children, citing research from UW which found that introducing teens to alcohol as a means of teaching responsible use backfires. She suggests settling on family rules, which should emphasize that — as with alcohol — kids and teens are below the legal age limit.
Those are recommendations John Sanders can get behind. The chairman of the Edmonds Community College music department, Sanders took his 9- and 11-year-old daughters to a rally celebrating legalization, but he’s not about to fire up a joint in front of them. Sanders and his wife regularly use marijuana – he says they smoke out of range of the daughters – and the girls know about their habit. The candor is essential because Sanders prefers to consume his weed in baked goods and, thanks to an open discussion and strict boundaries, his daughters know to stay far away from what they call “grown-up cake” and “daddy cookies.”