Yes, Dear, Smoking Dope IS a Big Deal

Dear Mr. Dad: My 15-year old daughter has been suspended from school several times for smoking marijuana on campus. She also regularly comes home from parties smelling like pot. My wife and I smoked when we were in college (we don’t anymore), but we’ve told our daughter that she shouldn’t. She just calls us hypocrites and says that smoking weed isn’t that big of a deal. We’re worried about her. What can we do?

A: Step number one is to quit worrying about your daughter’s dope smoking and start actually doing something to make her stop. Cities across the country—and two entire states (Colorado and Washington—have either decriminalized or completely legalized marijuana use. So it’s no surprise that many of your daughter’s peers agree with her that smoking it is “no big deal.” In fact, that misguided opinion has been gaining popularity among teens for quite some time. In 2005, 74% of eighth graders and 58% of 12th graders said that being a regular marijuana user was dangerous. Today, it’s 61% and 40%, respectively.

A recent study done at Northwestern University found that teens who smoked marijuana regularly had “abnormal changes in their brain structures related to working memory and performed poorly on memory tasks.” But what does “regular” mean? In the Northwestern study, it was every day for three years. But according to addiction researcher Constance Scharff, from Cliffside Malibu (an addiction treatment center), “regular” could mean as little as once a week. “Pot damages the heart and lungs,” says Dr. Scharff. “And it increases the incidence of shorter tempers, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, and it can trigger acute psychotic episodes.” Regardless of your definition of “regular,” the younger one is when lighting up for the first time, the greater the damage.

Some say that marijuana isn’t addictive, but a growing amount of research shows that as many as one in six smokers—especially those under 25, whose brain is still developing—will become addicted. Many experts also consider marijuana to be a “gateway drug,” meaning that smoking it increases the likelihood of trying other, more dangerous—and more addictive—drugs.

Here’s what to do to get your daughter to quit:

  • Explain. The pot you smoked when you were in college was nowhere near as strong as what’s available today. Plus, in your day, most people didn’t start experimenting with drugs until about age 20. Today, kids as young as 11 or 12 are trying drugs. By the time they reach 20 they’ve already done major damage to their brain.
  • Get tough. If she gets an allowance, cancel it (If she doesn’t have money, she won’t be able to buy drugs, and her friends will get tired of her mooching off them). If she’s hoping to get a driver’s license or permit anytime soon, cancel that too. Take away her phone, ground her. If she any of those things back, she’ll have to earn them by taking regular drug tests (you can get at-home kits at many drugstores) and staying clean for several months.
  • Eat together. Children who have regular meals with their parents tend to have lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse. But the meals themselves aren’t magic—it’s the conversations and clear messages that mom and dad care that do the trick.
  • Encourage sports. Athletes tend to care about their body and they tend to stay away from things that could negatively affect their performance.
  • Get help. If none of this works, you’ll need to find a therapist who has lots of experience–and success—working with teens who have drug abuse or addiction issues.