What steps should a parent take when her adolescent admits to smoking pot and openly states he will continue to do so because he sees nothing wrong with it?
The first stage of responding by the parent involves trying to understand what your adolescent is actually experiencing and to try to engage him in a helpful dialogue. Hold back on your admonitions and threats. Instead, approach your youngster as the expert and ask for a greater understanding. For example, what is it like when you get high? Is it easy to get pot? How much does it cost these days? What different types of pot are out there now? I understand that the current weed is much stronger than what was around in my day. Is that true? Why do you like to get high... essentially, what are the benefits to you?
This last question opens up some important areas to explore. For some adolescents, it is purely a social activity, not unlike having a few beers with their friends when they are hanging out on a weekend night. (I'm not suggesting that's acceptable either; but it identifies it as the less risky recreational use.) It's also interesting who he is smoking with. Is it his usual friends (you may be surprised to learn that some of your adolescent's friends that you like and thought were positive influences use as much or more)? For him to answer that question you have to pledge confidentiality.
Sometimes it turns out that the kids he gets high with are not his regular buddies and it's important to know if he's beginning to be influenced by some other adolescents that may be more of a fringe group who don't appear to share the values you and your adolescent have discussed as important. If there is such a shift taking place that in itself becomes an important topic for exploration. Why is he distancing himself from his usual social group? Are they "not cool", perhaps because they don't get high? Or, has his old group moved beyond him in some way?
How much of the pot use is based on filling some personal need? One of the most frequent driving forces behind abuse of pot is when it is a form of self-medication. This is when adolescents who have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder use pot to calm their jitters or the depressed youngster uses pot to shut off negative thoughts and feelings. This group of users is more likely to smoke alone as well as with peers and that's an important distinction to make. If there is an underlying problem driving the use of pot, it is important to identify that and encourage getting help for that problem.
One good question to pose is "How would you know when it's not a good thing to do?" This is easily asked when your adolescent is quick to point out he is not a druggie like so and so who's always high. This part of the discussion will touch on how often he actually uses pot and under what circumstances. Most important it clarifies his ability to acknowledge that there are risks of abuse and can he tell the difference? For example is he aware that chronic users, defined as those who smoke daily for a month or more, typically will become depressed if they stop using?
Also is he aware of the ways in which pot negatively impacts users? For example, because it tends to create a sense of apathy (the "What, me worry?" syndrome), the negative effects of pot are often subtle and easy to miss. Research has shown that adolescents who use pot on some degree of a regular basis usually get their driver's license significantly later than non-users. This reflects the tendency to put things off and not care as much about things that are usually important. The adolescent that remains focused on his schoolwork, after school activities, and other interests, is clearly at less risk than the adolescent that starts letting things slip.
Please note that all of these points of discussion are not meant to be covered in a single conversation! Most adolescents would find that intolerable. Raise a few of the initial points, say you want to think about it, and would like to talk further. As always, part of the challenge is finding those occasional moments when your adolescent is actually in the mood to talk. Typically driving somewhere together is one of the best times, which also implies that often it is better to have only one parent involved in the conversation so it doesn't feel like a 2-on-1.
But once moms and dads have a better understanding of the reasons for use and the patterns of use, you should both express your displeasure in the following ways. First, it is illegal. Your adolescent needs to be reminded that he can be arrested and – yes – while not much happens to first time offenders, it’s still no fun to end up on probation and to have to do community service. In addition, employers now routinely drug test all applicants. Since traces of pot remain in the system for about a month and it is not as easy to hide as commonly thought, your adolescent may be very disappointed when he gets fired from his local, part-time job because of a positive drug screen. Moreover, as moms and dads, you do not want an illegal substance in your home nor do you want your adolescent or his friends smoking in your home. That needs to be a very clear, zero-tolerance rule.
It is important for you to express your disapproval of his use of pot in a calm, firm manner, without hysterics or unreasonable threats. You do not approve of this and will not condone it. You understand you cannot control his behavior, that if he chooses to smoke, you can't really stop him (more about exceptions to this later), but you will set some firm rules about this. For example, if you suspect he is breaking the rule by bringing pot into the house, he is to understand that his right to privacy in his room will be suspended, that periodic room searches will take place, and backpacks may also be searched.
Another issue is driving. If your adolescent has his license, the same rule about drinking and not driving apply to smoking pot and driving. The research is very clear that it delays reaction times and, therefore, increases the risk of accidents.
While there is potential for physiological addiction, and, of course, the major concern of moms and dads is that using pot will lead to using more serious drugs, the reality is that the vast majority of pot users do not go on to use heavy drugs. However, there is the significant potential for psychological addiction, based on the need to reduce stress and /or the need to fit in with peers. The key is looking for signs that use is turning into abuse; that your youngster's behavior or personality is changing in negative ways. If you begin to believe that your adolescent is developing a serious addiction, then you can take much stronger steps, including involving the police, requiring routine drug testing, and insisting upon individual and family counseling with a specialist in substance abuse.
Fortunately, most of the time, this is not the case. What you want to do in this situation is open up and maintain a line of communication that is based on accurate information about the risks involved and encourage your adolescent to make good decisions. In the end, it is that psychological capacity to be self-aware and make good decisions that is really much more important than whether or not your adolescent smokes pot for a period of his life.