Illinois’ marijuana laws are changing — and so are the weed conversations parents are having with their teens.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Illinois since 2014 and come January, pot will be legal for recreational use. A substance that was once the reason for convicting hundreds of thousands of people will now help rake in millions of tax dollars. It’s a substance that’s okay for adults but forbidden for those under 21 — or anyone near people under 21.
So how are we talking to young people about a drug that’s arguably still more taboo than alcohol but also recognized for its medicinal purposes? That’s a question one WBEZ reader sent in when we asked for your questions about legal weed.
We couldn’t reach that questioner so we talked to some teenagers about questions they have. Then we talked to folks with the experience to help parents answer those questions effectively.
Our expert panel:
Jakina Dortch is the manager of higher education and scholarship at Chicago Youth Programs. She mentors and works with nearly 200 teens and young adults on the South and West Sides.
Maria Rahmandar is the medical director of the Substance Use & Prevention Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Maureen Surin is an advocate for medical marijuana access in Illinois. Her daughter uses medical marijuana to treat severe epilepsy. She sued the state to allow her daughter to use cannabis at school.
The curious question: “I want to find out how the high really works.”
— 15-year-old Chicagoan
Maria Rahmandar: “Research shows talking about substance use does not make kids want to try it. So that’s good news. You can talk about it with kids who haven’t even thought about trying it. And I think the earlier teens get information, the more likely they are to make educated decisions about their health.
We do see that teens are less likely to use if their parents have consistent and clear boundaries around substance use. [You can say] that it’s not condoned but that you would love them and pick them up from a party if needed, but that you don’t want them using.”
The equity aspect: “I feel like [legalization] is for the better — that way people won’t get arrested for it.”
— 16-year-old Chicagoan
Jakina Dortch: “We need to be talking to kids about what the law says. My main concern is giving kids information about the law. There’s no ignoring the racial history of marijuana and how the war on drugs affected communities on the South and West Sides. So I need kids to know their rights when it comes to marijuana, that it’s still illegal for them and for young adults to know how they might still get in trouble under the new law.”
The health question: “[I want to know] the long-term effects, health-wise. Like what does it do to me physically?”
— 17-year-old Chicagoan
Maria Rahmandar: “Talking about the future is hard because teens may think about their future but make decisions in the moment.
So [make] the messaging directly applicable to them — how things can affect their appearance, their breath, their sports performance. Something like: “Smoking marijuana — that can make your lungs sick and that can make it hard to be a top soccer player.”
Rahmander also said parents should also be up front about the fact that more long term studies are needed “to understand fully the effects of marijuana.”
But she said experts do know that the teenage brain is vulnerable to substance abuse. Brains are still developing until a person is in their early 20s. Developing brains are more susceptible to negative consequences from substance use, like effects on coordination and focus. Not everybody who tries marijuana ends up having an addiction, but experts say many adults with an addiction started using a substance as a teenager.
The medical question: “It’s sort of sketch to me that it’s both a medicine and for fun.”
— 17-year-old Chicagoan:
Maria Rahmandar: “I usually put medical marijuana in quotes because we don’t have sufficient data. I think you can have that conversation where [you say] that there are other medications that can help adults when they’re sick, but then when they’ve used more than they’re supposed to [it ] can be dangerous.”
Maureen Surin: “Recreational is just like alcohol — it’s an adult product, a stimulant or relaxant that has legal restrictions. We have to tell kids that medical can have a huge positive impact on people who need it, but kids have to realize it’s a medical substance that involves doctors, prescriptions and legal restrictions.”
The hypocrisy question: “My dad smokes weed but he doesn’t want me to do it, which seems pretty hypocritical.”
— 17-year-old Chicagoan
Maria Rahmandar: “Teens can see through lies. Be honest about [your use] without glamorising it. And set a good example for responsible use. I would especially recommend not using drugs before driving — showing healthy ways of getting around from place to place. Showing kids that you don’t use these substances before having to go to a job or be involved in parenting.”
And if your kid ends up using marijuana: “I have a lot of stuff on my plate and sometimes you need to take a load off.”
Maria Rahmandar: “I like to ask why, and what they get from using before saying: ‘Don’t do it.’ Because there may be legitimate reasons but there might be healthier ways to reach their goals.
So if somebody who’s like: ‘I’m super depressed and I don’t want to feel that way’ — that’s really good information to know because there are other steps to take to help them, rather than just saying: ‘Don’t do it.’”
These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mariah Woelfel is a producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.
Illustrations are by WBEZ’s interactive producer Paula Friedrich. You can follow her on Twitter @pauliebe.