DENVER – Michael Jolton was a young father with a 5-year-old son when Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000. Now he's got three boys, the oldest near adulthood, and finds himself repeatedly explaining green-leafed marijuana ads and "free joint" promotions endemic in his suburban hometown.
"I did not talk to my oldest son about marijuana when he was 8 years old. We got to talk about fun stuff. Now with my youngest who's 8, we have to talk about this," said Jolton, a consultant from Lakewood.
A marijuana opponent with a just-say-no philosophy, Jolton, 48, is among legions of American parents finding the "drug talk" increasingly problematic as more states allow medical marijuana or decriminalize its use. Colorado and Washington state have measures on their Nov. 6 ballot that would go a further step and legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults.
Parent-child conversations about pot "have become extraordinarily complicated," said Stephen Pasierb, president of the Partnership at Drugfree.org, which provides resources for parents concerned about youth drug use.
Legalization and medical use of marijuana have "created a perception among kids that this is no big deal," Pasierb said. "You need a calm, rational conversation, not yelling and screaming, and you need the discipline to listen to your child."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, says the family conversations "are becoming a lot more real" because most of today's parents likely tried marijuana themselves.
"Parents know a lot more about what they're talking about, and kids probably suspect that their parents did this when they were younger and didn't get in trouble with drugs," Nadelmann said. "There's still hypocrisy, but the level of honesty and frankness in the parent-child dialogue about marijuana is increasing every year."
The Haskins family of Olympia, Wash., provides a vivid example of how the conversations have evolved.
Sarena Haskins, 41, and her sister are both longtime users of pot for health reasons, and Sarena's 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, has become an advocate of medical marijuana to the point of posting a video online expressing her views.
Yet Sarena Haskins opposes the ballot measure that would legalize recreational use of pot in Washington and advises Hannah to avoid experimentation with the drug.
"I'm a little a little nervous about those conversations, but I'm having them now," Haskins said. "I tell Hannah it's not a smart choice, that she needs to focus on school ... You can't just be a pot head and be lazy."
Another longtime parent/pot user is Tim Beck, a Detroit insurance broker who succeeded in getting a marijuana legalization measure on the city's ballot for Nov. 6. The measure wouldn't supersede the state law against non-medical marijuana use, but would let adults possess small amounts of pot on private property without facing arrest under city ordinances.
Beck says his 17-year-old daughter, Maria, who is now studying at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, observed his pot smoking throughout her youth.
"I decided I wouldn't hide it ... no big deal, no lectures. It's something she grew up with," said Beck, 60. "I don't know whether she's tried marijuana or not, and I don't care. If we detect any evidence of dysfunctional behavior, which we never have, then we'd focus on that."
The legalization campaign grates on Yolanda Harden, 47, officer manager at a Detroit middle school who has raised five kids of her own and a dozen others from her circle of friends and family.
Harden said her own parents battled drug problems that started with marijuana use, and she tries to convey to the youths in her care they could risk the same fate.
But she finds it harder now to get that message through. "Because it's so popular, they truly believe it's harmless."
Michigan, Colorado and Washington are among 17 states where medical marijuana is legal. More than a dozen states, and many municipalities, have scrapped criminal penalties for small-scale pot possession or made it a low-priority crime for police.
In Colorado, hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries and growers operate legally, and ads invite new patients to try their pot.
In Boulder, Colo., home to nation's largest college pro-marijuana protest each spring, city councilwoman KC Becker doesn't oppose Boulder's thriving marijuana business but realizes that, within her family, she'll have to approach the topic differently than her parents did.
"My parents definitely didn't talk to me about drugs, ever," Becker said. Marijuana legalization, she said, "does force you to talk about it and explain it — but that's not necessarily bad."
What will Becker tell her 4-year-old when he learns to read the pot ads?
"I'll say, 'That's a store where people can get medicine to help them when they feel sick, but you have to be responsible in using it and old enough,'" Becker said.
In Portland, Ore., a 29-year-old mom found out the hard way that her kids needed more information.
Serra Frank uses marijuana to treat a bladder condition. When her 8-year-old son heard last fall in a school anti-drug campaign that marijuana harms the brain, he burst into tears and told school authorities he was scared because his mom uses pot.
Police came to their house, and Frank had some explaining to do — to the authorities to prove she was using pot legally, and to her son.
"I tell him it's medicine. It helps with pain, but it's not for kids," Frank said.
Six years ago Frank created a Facebook page called Moms for Marijuana to ask advice from other marijuana users with children. The group now has some 17,000 online members and chapters in 40 states.
"Nobody really wants to talk about it," said Frank. "It's been ingrained into our brains that it's a bad, bad thing and we're supposed to be afraid of it."
Trish Nixon of Colorado Springs had two children living at home when Colorado legalized medical marijuana. She tackled the topic head-on, evolving from a "It's against the law — don't do it" warning to a more nuanced message.
"I would explain why somebody might need to use it, the right reasons some people need it and why some people are using it for the wrong reasons," Nixon said.
Her daughter, Krista, now 21, said she never considered marijuana a big deal. "My generation just grew up with it," she said, though adding that she's never used it.
Gretchen Burns Bergman, a fashion show producer from San Diego, has two grown sons who struggled with heroin addiction, including one who served prison time. Founder of a group called Moms United to End the War on Drugs, she hopes more parents will support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana as a relatively safe option compared to hard drugs.
"We've been talking down to our kids for far too long," she said. "It widens the divide if we say the stuff is just terrible, and they're not seeing the bad effects. It's just scare tactics, and they disbelieve us."
Indeed, marijuana activists make the case to parents that pot is less dangerous than alcohol.
In Colorado, the legalization campaign aired a television ad titled "Dear Mom," showing a young woman talking to her off-camera parents about marijuana.
"It's less harmful to my body, I don't get hung over, and honestly, I feel safer around marijuana users," she says.
Recent national surveys indicate that many teens view marijuana as relatively benign, with more of them now smoking pot then cigarettes.
Linda Pearlman Gordon, a psychotherapist from Chevy Chase, Md., who often counsels families, says a child's well-being — rather than fear of arrest — is increasingly likely to be the focus of parent/child conversations as the legalization drive continues.
She says parents should strive to discourage any drug usage that isolates a child socially or inhibits their maturation.
"It's troubling when anyone uses a substance to self-medicate, to push away difficult feelings," she said. "You want to make sure your child, if having difficult feelings, knows there are healthy ways to deal with it."
Stephen Pasierb of the Partnership at Drugfree.org says it's vital for parents to engage their children in relaxed discussions — "See where your kid is at. Ask them, 'What do you think?'" — and to do so before they reach middle school, where pot use is surging.
"Kids are willing to press all of mom's and dad's buttons, but they don't want to lose the ultimate respect of their parents," he said. "It's important for parents not to say, 'If you smoke marijuana, we'll throw you out of the house' but they should say they'll be disappointed."
His advice to parents who partook of pot in their youth:
"You should not lie to your child, but you don't owe them a blow by blow explanation of every party you went to."