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Teens want real talk about pot [Commentary]

Last month, when Gov. Martin O'Malley passed historic legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Maryland was abuzz. Politicians, the media, advocates and critics voiced their opinions (both supporting and opposing the bill) loud and clear. But there was a critical voice missing from this conversation: the voice of a teenager.

It's widely understood that decriminalization is the first step toward legalization, and teens understand all too well how this will play out in conversations at the dinner table and in drug education classrooms at school. Adults will say, "we support Governor O'Malley, and we see the merits to decriminalizing marijuana, yet it is still never OK for you to possess or smoke pot."

This mixed message is old news to teenagers who have heard it all before:

"Well, yes, sweetie, marijuana can have legitimate benefits and can be used for medical purposes, but that isn't for you."

"Of course driving while high is unacceptable," they say, "we just don't have PSAs about it like drunk driving because it isn't a priority."

OK, "so pot may not be a gateway drug," said National Institute on Drug Abuse facilitators in their Chat Day to high schoolers, "but don't do it."

Clearly, adults and our society as a whole are sending us mixed messages. Is it any surprise then that marijuana use is steadily on the rise among young adults? The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that use among people aged 18 to 25 increased to 18.7 percent — nearly one in five — from 16.6 percent in 2008.

As teenagers begin to doubt the words of their parents and teachers, they must figure out on their own if pot is dangerous. Unsurprisingly, they turn to their peers who engage with their curiosity rather than shutting them down.

Yet, a teen's peer is most likely to be a biased source and sometimes an unreliable one. According to a Gallup poll, an overwhelming 67 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed support legalizing marijuana. Coupling that support with the fact that use is on the rise, young people are no longer seeing marijuana as a real threat or danger. It's obvious then that when we turn to our friends to talk about marijuana, an exchange of ideas will lead to arguments that solely promote marijuana's beneficial or harmless attributes.

You may not buy the validity of these arguments, but can you really blame your children for accepting them?

We don't expect our parents to support more progressive legislation or legalization of marijuana. (Although, according to polls, more and more of you support it every year.) We fully understand that you have your own thoughts and experiences. We respect the fact that you have fears that "only a parent" can have. We are not asking you to change your ways because we fully respect your ability to make level-headed and reasonable judgments.

But just as we respect you, we are asking that you respect us. All we ask is that Maryland's new law sparks a conversation, not a lecture. You have taught us to think critically and use our voices, so when we choose to engage with you about this topic, listen. When we ask questions that deserve a legitimate response, answer. If we want to discuss the positive effects of legalizing marijuana with you, be tolerant of our opinions.

Intolerance could come at a cost. If you shut down your children every time they try to approach you, you risk being labeled "old," "uncaring" or "out of touch." While the goal of your intolerance might be to teach that under all circumstances, pot is a monster, there's a real risk that when your kids look at your narrow-minded attitude, the only monster they'll see is you.

Julia Kim Leff is a Bryn Mawr School for Girls alumna currently studying Sociology and Political Science at Columbia University. Her email is jkl2158@columbia.edu.

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