We can debate the science of marijuana, a drug, and challenge the soundness of public policy about it without ever reaching a consensus about the wisdom of legalizing or criminalizing it or finding some sort of middle ground.

But in the meantime, there should be no dispute among us that we must openly and honestly talk about it with our kids or grandchildren, especially when it comes to our own use way back when or now, regardless of whether we ever inhaled.

Five years ago, my organization asked young people about the influence their parents have on their own perception or use of substances. Among other things, the “Four Generations Overcoming Addiction” survey found:

n Half of teens said it would make them less likely to use drugs if their parents told them about their own drug use when they were younger.

n Two-thirds of teens said their parents had already told them about their experiences with alcohol and other drugs when they were young, and these teens almost unanimously said such honesty about drug use is a good thing.

n About 75 percent of teens said they’d turn to their parents as their No. 1 source of advice about the use of alcohol or other drugs, even though 26 percent had seen their parents drunk or high.

n Parents who had not yet told their teenage children about their own use of alcohol or other drugs most commonly said the reason was they’d rather have their children do as they say and not as they did when they were their children’s age.

My hunch is that an updated survey would not show much change in such sentiments. Even in the rapidly expanding universe of social media and instant access to information, parents (and grandparents) remain a potent force for the truth with children.

What’s changed is the radical proliferation of efforts to make it easier to buy and use marijuana and the mixed messages about whether this is a good idea or a bad idea. Voters in Colorado and Washington have legalized it; marijuana is being sold in everything from expensive coffee blends to cookies to hard candy. Policymakers in Minnesota just voted to allow doctors to prescribe it in pill or liquid form for some patients with certain illnesses, and “medical marijuana” is legal in 21 states. (I’m still waiting for the alcohol industry to wake up and start pushing “medical wine.”) Some experts predict that within a few years, marijuana will be as easy to obtain and as socially acceptable to use as alcohol. And therein lies the danger. For though many people use alcohol, a drug, responsibly without consequences, we all know the toll of excessive alcohol consumption. The same is true for marijuana, a drug that affects some people in ways it doesn’t affect most. When it comes to driving under the influence, health problems and crime, a drug is a drug is a drug.

“The gap between the scientific understanding of marijuana’s harms and the public misunderstanding has never been greater — in part due to a relentless campaign by would-be profiteers who stand to make billions of dollars if marijuana is fully legalized,” warns Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration and the executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Sabet is the visible and vocal national advocate pushing back against the tide of legalization. The issue won’t be resolved for a long time.

In the meantime, what’s a parent to do? Talk to your kids. They want to hear from you. And you want to hear from them.

It starts with sharing your story of experience with marijuana or any other drug. Many baby boomers have a storehouse of insight made credible by what we did in high school or in college or later. You don’t need to glorify or demonize substances. But shoot straight about it — because kids want us to tell them, as the survey said — with accurate information that comes from personal knowledge.

It shouldn’t be a fire-and-brimstone rant or a “just say no” monologue, either. And it mustn’t be, “It’s OK for you to do it because I did it, too.” Either extreme shuts down the opportunity for ongoing conversation, which, when it comes to tough topics such as drugs, is a discussion best had as time unfolds. Engage your children by empowering their voice and their perspective — today and whenever they want to talk or listen.

The reason that those who think it’s OK for young people to use marijuana because we did way back when are wrong is that the intricately modified and grown strains of marijuana of today’s generation are far more potent than what was around when we were young. And that’s the truth nobody can deny.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author ofBroken,” his best-selling memoirs.


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