Eighteen-year-old Kansas Citian Keyonna Brown said when she was growing up, her parents didn’t talk to her about smoking marijuana.
“Nobody had to tell me, I learned from experience,” she said. “That’s why I don’t smoke. I get paranoid. I get scary paranoid.”
She and Jayla Wilson, 18, sat around a table the other day at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library discussing the drug use they’ve seen in their peers and in older people.
“If you stop by here once a week, you will see how many people come in here looking like they do every drug,” Wilson said. “Some kids start when they get around their friends — 13, 14, 15. I know a couple of people who smoke with their kids.”
Before you shake your head in disapproval, understand that when it comes to marijuana, this is kind of a tricky moment for teens and their parents.
Marijuana use is illegal in Missouri (for now), but neighbors in Arkansas and Illinois have made medicinal marijuana legal. It’s illegal in Kansas, but just across the western border, Colorado has legalized recreational use and California recently followed suit.
For adults, that is. It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to use recreational marijuana, and that’s unlikely to ever change. And under federal law, it’s still a no-no for everyone.
It’s no wonder young people are inundated with mixed messages.
At one end of the spectrum, there are the horror stories. A 17-year-old was shot in Lawrence in recent weeks, allegedly the victim of a marijuana deal gone wrong. Among Kansas City’s 100 traffic fatalities in 2017, police attributed half to impaired driving from drugs and alcohol.
Then there are the entertainment and sports stars who advocate for marijuana. A couple of different Chiefs players have been busted over the years. And when conservative, white-bread country music is the music genre with the highest — no pun intended — frequency of lyrical marijuana references, some kind of change is definitely in the air.
“In today’s climate, it’s almost like the kids are more led to be involved with marijuana now than alcohol,” said Tony Woollen, district resource officer at Shawnee Mission East. “It’s more challenging for them to get alcohol than marijuana.”
In Kansas, marijuana use among young people is up in some counties and down in others. As recently as 2011-12, Kansas ranked near the bottom in use among people ages 12 and up, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration surveys. Missouri was 35th at the time, Alaska was No. 1.
“What we’re seeing is the perceived risk of harm is going down,” said Lisa Chaney, director of research and evaluation at Greenbush, the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center.
For almost 25 years, Greenbush has collected data from 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders on a variety of topics in the Communities That Care Student Survey.
On the question of “How much do you think people risk harming themselves if they try marijuana once or twice?,” more than 25 percent of the students surveyed answered “No risk.”
It’s the highest percentage since the survey started in 1995.
So what’s a parent to do? What do you say to your teen when marijuana is legal over here and not so legal over there?
And, if you sparked a spliff (a marijuana cigarette) in your day, how do you talk to your kids and not feel like an old hypocrite? What do you do if you find weed in Junior’s sock drawer?
“Parents a lot of times react, like, ‘There’s marijuana here, now my kids are going to be dealing with drug cartels in wherever the drug cartels are,’ ” said Michael Moore, an Independence-based family therapist who counsels students in some Missouri schools. “That’s not the case.”
He said he sees marijuana use cutting across all types of students, like the cross section of kids who smoked weed in the 1980s John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club,” only the kids these days have iPhones.
“Just the ease of obtaining cannabis has a lot to do with it,” Moore said. “We’re looking at CBD (cannabidiol hemp oil), we’re looking at medicinal use of cannabis, those kind of things. It de-mystifies how it will affect them in the future. Students also see it as there’s a lot worse things out there. I think parents, in some ways, view it in the same way — ‘My son or daughter could be using heroin or something.’”
Fred Muench, the newly installed president of the national Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, says the long-term effects on the developing brain are lessened the older a person is when she or he first tries marijuana. The brain in adolescence is in a period of impulsivity, curiosity and consequence-free thinking.
“The goal here is delay, delay, delay, delay,” he said. “Let a 25-year-old make a decision about using marijuana, not a 15-year-old.”
Muench said the Partnership has changed its tactics somewhat. The anti-drug ads are still out there, but grown-ups may not see them as much because, like all advertising these days, it’s targeted at specific markets and demographics. But there also is slightly less of it, partly because funding has dried up a little.
Past tactics of “Just Say No” have come into question in the past few decades, but it’s still pretty clear that smoke of any type is bad for anyone’s lungs. Richard Mahan, D.A.R.E.’s chief operating officer, says the facts speak for themselves.
“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s something that is healthy or a good, safe behavior to exercise,” he said. “Cigarettes are legal everywhere, but the science is real clear. It’s not just about marijuana. That smartphone they hold in their hand also is presenting young people with high-risk behavior opportunities on a daily basis.”