A letter to my son on marijuana [Commentary]

Dear Drew:

I've been thinking a great deal about marijuana lately.

You can't turn on the television without seeing breathless reporters talking about a new cultural enthusiasm for legalizing weed. Two states (Colorado and Washington) have legalized marijuana possession for personal use. And it's probably only a matter of time before Maryland joins the party — pun intended.

You are now 14 years old. A high school freshman. Homework and sports dominate your life. Your goals are unlimited. Your mother and I think you are terrific, but not perfect. We also know you face the same issues and pressures any young person faces in today's permissive society.

So, this is not "THE TALK"— not in front of a couple hundred thousand readers, anyway.

But it is a reminder of what Mom and I have discussed with you since you were 7.

First, let's get every parent's 800-pound gorilla out of the way: No, I didn't touch the stuff. My reasons were pretty compelling: I was never interested in setting fire to something before I placed it in my mouth; smoking marijuana was (and is) illegal; and I knew better than to blow the scholarship opportunities that had been given to me.

I may have been more the exception than the rule for my generation, however. Marijuana was on every college campus in the 1970s, much like it is today. Many of my friends experimented socially, some smoked on a regular basis.

I did not think less of them for their actions nor did I lose friends in the process. Most did not develop a habit that led to harder drugs. But I did leave the room/dorm/area whenever the stuff began to be passed around. I didn't wish to pay the price for someone else's dumb decision making.

There is another, less direct connection I have with marijuana.

You know I have served in the state legislature, Congress and as governor. These positions gave me a chance to visit dozens of jails and prisons (juvenile and adult) throughout Maryland.

These are awful places. Many of the facilities are right out of "Scared Straight" — nasty, depressing institutions where dangerous people are housed in crowded conditions. (Thank God we have people willing to work in such environments.)

My most lasting impressions resulted from discussions with the inmates. They were white, black, male, female, poor, wealthy. Their previous stations in life didn't much matter — 99 percent of the time their stories had a common denominator: addiction. Typically, an addiction that had led to the commission of a crime and then incarceration. And that habit seemingly always began with weed.

Often, we watch comedians or one or another of our cultural value makers poke fun at parental over-reaction to pot, A.K.A. "killer weed." These folks confidently point out that the "gateway drug" really isn't since so many people can handle their recreational drug of choice. I guess most people do handle it, just not the inmates I met in those Maryland prisons. I wish the image makers could experience what I've experienced. If they did, I don't think they would find marijuana quite so funny, or its legalization quite so clear cut.

A few years ago, my friends in the Bush administration got angry at my support of medical marijuana. They saw it as a backdoor step toward legalization. I saw it as one (merciful) option for those suffering from intense pain due to a dire or terminal condition. (An up-close experience with your 44-year-old cancer-stricken uncle had only strengthened my conviction here.) Anyway, there is a world of difference between those suffering from devastating illness and those who simply wish to get high.

Parenting has a life cycle. The older you get, the less control I have over your life. This is as it should be. Indeed, college is all about exploring and grappling with newfound freedoms. It's called growing up.

Some kids will go wild. "Chains off" means "anything goes." The vast majority will survive, to their parents' everlasting relief.

Others will not be so fortunate. Here, bad decisions will lead to bad results — wasted opportunities — lost lives.

Mom and I want you to learn, explore, have fun. But when someone next month, next year or four years from now offers you a joint, we have one request: Think for a second about those kids I met so many years ago — the ones who couldn't handle it. Some looked just like you.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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