We live in a world filled with many risks, especially for children. Like any good mother, I want to do everything possible to protect my son. Unfortunately, our modern world presents many more dangers than any mother would like to see, particularly in light of the complex web of the international drug industry. We all know the havoc wreaked upon entire generations by the tobacco and alcohol industries, but not nearly enough attention has been paid to the deadly distribution of prescription pharmaceuticals, which now kill a U.S. citizen every 19 minutes. Even aspirin can be deadly.
But that is only the beginning of the litany of harms from which I, as a mother, must daily protect my son from. U.S. and international drug policy have also introduced risks of deadly violence, not only through the prosecution of turf wars at the hands of street gangs and international cartels, but also at the hands of the very people we charge with protecting us – the increasingly militarized law enforcement groups which have stepped up SWAT-like tactics as part of their efforts to control the supply of illicit drugs. Even if I insulate my son from all such direct violence, a wide range of subtler violence still may ruin his life through the diminished employment prospects and Pell grant ineligibility associated with a drug-related arrest record. And overzealous bureaucrats at Child Protective Services (CPS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regularly tear families apart in the name of protecting kids.
It is an understandable reaction to call for laws to be more “tough on crime,” but the past 100 years of policy following this principle have failed. Drugs are still available to kids, while risks of arrest and violence have increased. New approaches are therefore necessary. Here is what I do to protect my child from the dangers of the illegal drug industry:
I oppose drug war violence. In Mexico, the casualty rate of cartel-related violence has now reached an intolerable 40 deaths per day and many of the dead have been youth. Mothers north of the border also have reason to not feel totally safe; drug trade violence regularly crosses the border, either in the form of international smugglers trying to protect their U.S. turf or in the guise of domestic street gangs who seldom pause to consider the collateral damage of their gun fights. The U.S. government fans the flames by supplying advanced weaponry and training to local law enforcement in exchange for inflated arrest numbers. The result has been a new wave of police who have become too trigger-happy and who traumatize kids with unnecessarily violent raids. In light of the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform, ICE has stepped in to fill the void by tearing families apart on the basis of even tiny amounts of cannabis found in the home. As an activist as well as a mother, I labor every day to reform an entrenched and broken system which poses much greater risk to my son’s safety than marijuana itself ever did.
I advocate for smarter regulations at home. As the chair of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the largest cannabis reform group in California, I am painfully aware of the poor job our present drug policies are doing to keep intoxicating substances out of teens’ hands. High schoolers report that access to cannabis is as easy as ever, alcohol culture still preys on our youth and abuse of prescription pills has increased at an alarming rate. By the time my son reaches adolescence, I want our nation’s laws to be the most effective possible in deterring risky behaviors. To that end, I and my fellow cannabis reform activists in California, strenuously advocate for certain common-sense reforms, including age-restricted access, quality control and compassionate treatment programs.
At the top of the list stands a requirement to verify the age of would-be marijuana purchasers. While the practice of carding isn’t foolproof, requiring age verification at point of sale can be a powerful tool in the policy toolbox. Of course, the illicit market can still cater to minors, but overall the cannabis industry will be less profitable for illegal distributors when it is dominated by regulated outlets; the legitimate distributors will compete the illegitimate dealers out of business. This is important not only because illicit dealers never card but also because reform will truncate the exposure curious teens looking for weed will have to more dangerous drugs, through drug dealers who usually have no compunctions about “upselling” their cannabis customers to more profitable meth or heroin.
Just as important is the issue of quality control. While I’m not thrilled about the idea of my son experimenting with cannabis before he has reached adulthood, I’m even more concerned about the possibility of adulterants which find their way daily into an illicit industry without oversight. This includes both pharmacological adulterants like PCP and synthetic marijuana (AKA Spice) as well as chemical adulterants like pesticides or butane which can easily slip into an unregulated supply chain. The problem becomes compounded by the prevalence of high-sugar brownies and other “medicated” candies which may be a godsend for certain patients with special needs but may also prove a potent temptation for curious kids. Proper labeling and childproof containers can go a long way toward protecting our kids from accidental exposure to cannabis, but only if we legalize it first.
Finally, there is the issue of drug abuse treatment. Some children turn to marijuana not because of any supposed addictive properties, but rather because they are trying to self-treat depression or trauma. We can try keeping drugs out of the hands of such youth, but until the underlying cause is treated the drive to abuse intoxicants will always remain. That is why it is essential that we remove the stigmas and legal risks currently attached to cannabis dependence and instead create a culture and set of laws where teens feel safe admitting problematic drug use. We need to make it okay to seek out compassionate treatment (not the kind found in too many drug courts, in which “treatment” is used as a euphemism for punishment – and crowd out space for people who truly need help), so that teens who make mistakes can find a path back to a bright future.
I talk to my son. The most important step I ever take as a mother is to arm my son with responsible education. I make sure he understands that what is OK for grown-ups is not necessarily safe for kids; while the toxicity of cannabis in adults is remarkably low, its effects on kids are far less certain. For example, some studies suggest that abuse of marijuana by teens with still-developing brains may lead to cognitive or behavioral problems later in life; while methodological limitations of these studies render their results somewhat inconclusive, it still makes sense for any mother to discourage marijuana abuse by teens – just to be on the safe side. Similarly, just because the weight of medical evidence clearly shows that cannabis is safer than alcohol, tobacco or most prescription pills does not mean that it’s OK for children to try it; some behaviors just need to wait until adulthood.
Such conversations have become even more urgent in the wake of our government’s campaign of “Reefer Madness” scare propaganda, which only tarnishes the credibility of institutions we ideally would want our kids to trust. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Truthful education campaigns on the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use have led to encouraging declines of teenage abuse of these drugs; the same tactic can also work for cannabis. In fact, among the amazing reform community in which I’m privileged to work, I have found that very few of the teenage children of activists I know have any interest in trying cannabis at all – proof that talking honestly about pot with our kids does not mean condoning risky behaviors.
Every mother knows that kids, and especially teens, have minds of their own. Experimentation is an inevitable part of the experiential process which enables all of our children to learn and grow. But since every teen will eventually face the choice to “pick their poisons” at some point, I’d much rather they choose clean and clearly labeled cannabis over almost any other alternative out there; and if my curious son stumbles across any bottle or jar in the medicine cabinet, I’d rather he find cannabis than aspirin or prescription pills. After all, his safety comes first and matters most.
Originally published in Issue 9 of Cannabis Now Magazine