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It's High Time We Talked, Dear

Marijuana use is up nationally, but most Palo Alto high schoolers haven't talked to their parents about it.

Turns out the ‘80s are in (again). Beyond the padded shoulders and spiked hair, even the movies I had happily forgotten are now all the rage. Working Girl, Desperately Seeking Susan, Flashdance, are being watched with enthusiasm by teens across the country.

So I wasn’t too surprised to find my own teenagers cracking up as they watched trailers from that old movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The scenes with stoner Jeff Spicoli, eyes red as fire engines, saying, “I’m so wasted” were of particular amusement to my kids. 

I thought they were funny too, until I read a recent study saying marijuana use is now at a 30-year high (yes, pun intended) for 12th graders. In fact, pot use is up for 8th and 10th graders too according to the study conducted by University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. They've been tracking teenage drug and alcohol use of 8th, 10th and 12th graders since 1975.

The good (and somewhat surprising) news is that there has been a long-term gradual decline of alcohol use. It reached an all-time low this year.

The bad news? More kids are getting stoned than ever before: 43 percent of high school seniors reported having tried pot at least once. Nearly six percent of them reported daily use of the drug. 

“Put another way, one in every fifteen high school seniors today is smoking pot on a daily or near daily basis,” says Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study.

“That seems very low,” said a friend of mine who preferred to remain anonymous. The principal at her son’s high school (no, not here in Our Fair City) told her he estimates about 80 percent of the boys in her son’s senior class are getting high with some regularity. 

Another parent agreed. “There used to be just the stoners and everyone else," she said. "Now, there’s the jock-stoners, the drama-stoners, the band-stoners, the nerd-stoners. Even the high achievers are stoners these days.”

A third parent said, “In most cases, the kids have gotten the message about the risks of alcohol. Campaigns like the ones started by the Mothers Against Drunk Driving have done a great job changing teenage behavior. But pot is another story. The push for medical marijuana makes it seem like pot is healthy for you.”

There may be some truth to this according to former school teacher, Beth O’Malley, who is currently completing her internship to become a marriage and family counselor. She says nearly 70 percent of the students she sees are regular pot smokers. She believes, “The push for medical marijuana has set the message back. As a therapist, it makes our work harder than ever.”

Supporters of legalizing pot disagree. They argue the research doesn't show that support of medical marijuana results in increased use by teenagers. They do say pot is not for kids, but believe adults should have the right to consume as they see fit.  

Many children of the 70s seem to agree. When most of us were in high school, getting stoned was a mainstay of teenage life. Now we are parents and it may be hard for us to see pot as a threat. Everyone knew a Spicoli. But they were the exception, not the norm. 

Apparently, in Our Fair City, they still are.

Becky Beacom, Manager of Health Education at the , says “Most teenagers in Palo Alto are not using marijuana. In fact, the vast majority have never even tried it.” 

She says, we have to be careful of perpetuating “health terrorism” and argues for more clarity on what is normative behavior. 

The California Department of Education’s Healthy Kids report confirms Beacom’s assessment and contradicts the national trend. According to its 2010 survey of Palo Alto high school students, 69 percent claimed they had never tried marijuana - ever. But nearly three-quarters of them believed their peers had. 

“Teenagers are way over-perceiving how many kids are using marijuana,” says Beacom. “We want them to have accurate context to understand that not everyone is getting stoned.”  

One of the most concerning things to come out of the Healthy Kids Survey was the fact that 41 percent of Palo Alto students reported never having talked to their parents about pot. 

As a child of the 70s, I may be conflicted on whether pot should be legalized or not. However, I have no conflicted feelings regarding the importance of parents discussing the realities of drug and alcohol use with their children. To not do so seems like an egregious failure of parenting. 

Sadly, we’ve recently lost an important community resource. Beacom was a founding member of the Palo Alto Drug and Alcohol Community Collaborative started in 2002. Funded in part by Palo Alto Partners in Education, PADACC brought together law enforcement, health educators, teachers, parents, community activists, and treatment experts to help develop curriculum offering kids refusal skills and norms clarification. PADACC has lost its funding and is now in "rebuilding mode." 

Hopefully they’ll rebuild soon because it sounds as though not only do our students need context around pot, so do their parents. 

I don’t know why nearly half of the parents in Our Fair City have not had these conversations with their children. Perhaps it is as simple as we don’t know how.

You’ll find some good information here on how to talk to your children about marijuana. Additionally, Beth O’Malley recommended reading “Letter to My Daughters About Weed” by psychologist and writer, Dan Shapiro. She says it offers a very “real” take on the issue. 

These dialogues can be difficult, but if we don't have them, who will?

Jillian Galloway January 10, 2012 at 07:21 PM
How can teen marijuana use be increasing when we've had a prohibition on the stuff for more than forty years? Are you saying that the prohibition doesn't work? Our laws should NOT create more harm than good, if the prohibition can't prevent teens from buying marijuana then we should end it. Alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the US. The federal government does our society a disservice by preventing alcohol consumers from switching to the FAR safer recreational drug, cannabis. Regardless of the other issues, we must NOT vote for candidates not willing to legalize adult cannabis sales!
Terry Godfrey January 11, 2012 at 05:03 PM
For those interested in what our high school students are saying on this topic here is a link to the Developmental Assets survey done last school year. The section on drugs and alcohol starts on pg 6-1. http://pausd.org/parents/programs/StudentConnectedness/downloads/Palo%20Alto%20USD-HS%20ABfullreport.pdf
Yan Shaiodong January 29, 2012 at 09:43 AM
You may buy it on Amazon → http://tinyurl.com/786saju

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