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Originally published Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: What parents should say to teens about I-502 and marijuana legalization

The historic vote to legalize marijuana is a reminder of how important it is for parents to discuss marijuana with their children, writes guest columnist Roger Roffman.

Special to The Times

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THE voters have approved Initiative 502. A year from now, once licenses have begun to be issued to growers and sellers, it will be legal for those 21 or older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana.

Today, an estimated 20 percent of 10th-graders and 26 percent of 12th-graders in our state have used pot at least once in the prior month. No one can say with certainty whether the new law will have an effect on youth.

Nonetheless, this historic vote is a reminder of how important it is for parents to discuss marijuana with their children.

Fortunately, help is on the way. It’s the kind of help that has been missing while we’ve relied on and been disappointed by an ineffective prohibition approach to protect young people from the drug.

Substantial tax revenues generated from the legal sale of marijuana to adults will be earmarked for public education about marijuana, education based on science rather than ideology.

Today, far too many people — young and old — are misinformed about marijuana’s effects, both negative and positive, on health and behavior.

These new revenues will also make it possible for us to use proven approaches to youth substance-abuse prevention in geographic and demographically diverse communities across our state.

Researchers have learned a great deal about the knowledge, skills and supportneeded to help young people negotiate their way around detours due to alcohol, marijuana and other drug abuse. It’s time we adequately funded them.

We’ll see other ways in which these new revenues will contribute to greater safety and health in our communities.

For example, new funds will be devoted to evaluating the new law’s impact on behavior. With this data, the pricing and taxing of marijuana can be adjusted to maximally undercut the black market and maximally deter youth access to marijuana.

We’ll see a new marijuana help line created and funding will become available to help with the cost of treatment for those who need it.

In the meantime, conversations between parents and children about marijuana are key. Several months ago, during the Initiative 502 campaign, a dad came to see me. He had heard that I conduct research on marijuana.

He wanted to talk about his 15-year-old son. The dad wasn’t that surprised his son had tried pot with some friends, but when the son insisted everyone was getting high and it’s “no big deal,” the dad knew he needed to update what he had learned about marijuana 30 years earlier.

I told him that his son finding out what getting high is like said something about his curiosity and sense of adventure. Marijuana is out there and people his age know how to get it. Of course he’s curious.

I also said there’s lots of misinformation about pot in the media and on the Internet. For example, some do not acknowledge that many who smoke pot do it safely, out of fear that it will send the wrong message to teens.

Others erroneously insist that marijuana is harmless, safer than aspirin. These people don’t know what they’re talking about.

So, what’s true about pot? Here’s a pretty good website for teens to answer that question: For parents, here’s another:

I told the dad that for teenagers the risks include spiraling downhill at school and getting trapped on an emotional roller coaster much hairier than what’s already pretty hairy for teens. There’s more. Teens who use pot regularly are more likely to use other illegal drugs, to become dependent and to experience emotional problems.

When the dad asked for advice, I encouraged him to say, clearly and unambiguously, that he wanted his son not to use marijuana at this stage in his life. Maybe later, but not now.

I encouraged him to remember to listen and to be interested in his son’s views. Don’t try to wrap this up in just one conversation, I said. Let him know how important it is to you that he learns problem-solving and coping skills during his teen years that he’ll need for the rest of his life, skills that he will miss learning if he’s stoned much of the time.

Finally, let him know that turning down pot might be hard. Tell him you’ll support him in every way you know how in taking on that challenge.

There’s a booklet written for parents that can help them prepare for this conversation. Authored by Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, it’s titled “Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.” The booklet can be downloaded at no cost from the Drug Policy Alliance website.

Roger Roffman is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington, a sponsor of Initiative 502, and author of the forthcoming “A Marijuana Memoir.”

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