Alice, a 37-year-old mom in Madison, WI, made a recent walk with her two daughters more fun by naming the neighborhood wildlife, starting with Squirrely Squirrelerson and his cousin, Squirrelster McSquirrelstein. "My 4-year-old cracked up, and that made my 2-year-old dissolve into giggles," remembers Alice. "My kids demanded that I name every animal in sight, and I encouraged them to think of their own names, too." Cute story, right? Is it less cute if I tell you that Mom was a little bit stoned?
Mind you, Alice is not a compulsive pot-smoker or a checked-out parent. She's the picture of health and happiness, an athlete with tons of energy for her family. Still, she smokes pot a couple of times a week, usually after the kids are in bed. She says she does it for fun or to chill out, and, occasionally, to get into what she calls the "kid zone." "If I had been perfectly sober, I would have just taken a walk, thinking about what I needed to do next," Alice says. "I probably wouldn't have been all that engaged with my kids. But the stoned mama that I was that day made fun out of the mundane."
Lynn, a 32-year-old mother of three from Arlington, TX, would most certainly not find that story amusing. "If you have to smoke pot to get through the day with your family, there is something wrong," she says. When Lynn was a teen, her mom used to smoke marijuana, and Lynn hated it. "I knew it was illegal, and I knew it cost money we didn't have," she remembers. "It's horrible that a parent would get high when their job is to be responsible."
Yet more and more parents are doing just that. A surprisingly high 18 percent of people ages 26 to 34, and 9 percent of those 35 to 49, have smoked pot in the last year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (The data doesn't pinpoint how many of those people have kids, but we know that by age 44, about 80 percent of women do.)
This generation grew up with Dr. Dre's album The Chronic and movies like Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke. Now they're juggling the demands of careers and children. And I found that, instead of having a gin and tonic like their mothers may have, a surprising number of today's moms are lighting a joint - especially if they live in areas with vibrant alternative subcultures, like New Mexico, Colorado, or California. The advent of medical marijuana has certainly helped to legitimize pot in Los Angeles, where I live. (Dispensaries outnumber Starbucks in some neighborhoods.) But legalization is not only a California phenomenon: In many places, a joint and a stiff drink are viewed as roughly equivalent vices, if they're seen as vices at all.
Who's Minding the Kids?
Most of us wouldn't think twice about having a beer while home with the kids - maybe even getting slightly tipsy. But getting high? "If both parents are high, there is no adult in a position to give complete care to small children," says Melissa Wardy, 34, a mom of two from Janesville, WI. "Last year, my 2-year-old son fell down our basement steps. Had we been stoned, we would not have been able to give him emergency care, nor drive him to the ER or make coherent decisions about his needs." Occasional users may think that safety concerns don't apply to them, but the less often they use pot, the more altered they will be when they do. "If you're a regular user and you have a joint, you won't see much cognitive effect; you build up a tolerance," explains Carl Hart, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City, who has studied people's ability to function after taking the drug. "But if you smoke on a more limited basis, you'll see a slowing down of behaviors and short-term memory disruptions." Case in point: Jamie, 41, a mom of three in Encinitas, CA, who says she smokes pot once or twice a year at a dinner party. "When I smoke, I'm way altered," she says. "I know I'm acting weird, and I'd never want my kids to be around that." Compare that to daily user Nanette, a 27-year-old mom from Huntington Beach, CA: "I don't get stupid when I smoke - I can do it throughout the day without feeling any different," she says. Elizabeth, a 26-year-old mother of two from Clovis, NM, smokes regularly, and insists that it helps her in stressful parenting situations. Recently, "My son got a big splinter in his foot and was freaking out, but because I'd had a little weed, I was able to be super-calm and pluck it out quickly," she recalls. No expert recommends pot as a parenting aid (ideally, we'd all be calm enough to pluck out a splinter without lighting up a joint), but Hart says his research shows that "most heavy users can focus and concentrate in situations of great consequence" when they're high. "That doesn't mean I think they should be driving the carpool," he says. "The same warnings that would be on a bottle of Valium about driving and operating machinery apply."
Pot and Parents' Health
Like prescription drugs Valium and Xanax, marijuana has a mellowing effect, and many of the moms I interviewed told me that they smoke to manage their moods. Anna, a 37-year-old mother of two in Santa Monica, CA, says sneaking a puff while her younger son is napping "calms my anxiety. Sometimes I feel like I can't complete one thought, let alone the 25 requests my kids have just made. Pot has the same effect on me as 20 minutes of yoga, but I don't have time for 20 minutes of yoga." Marijuana can be medicinal, and some parents are using it like a quick-fix antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication - so does that make it okay? No, says Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist in Los Angeles. "I have mixed feelings, because I think marijuana probably does have beneficial uses for ADHD and depression, but it hasn't been properly studied," he says. "If it was regulated and labeled by the appropriate agencies, it could be a tool. But I don't prescribe it, because it's not safe or regulated."
Pot also comes with side effects and risks. Marijuana is notably less toxic and addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, but you can still get hooked. The probability of anyone who smokes becoming dependent on marijuana is 9 percent, according to the Institutes of Medicine. For a daily marijuana user, that number jumps anywhere from 25 to 50 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Physical dependence can happen with any psychoactive substance you take regularly," Sophy says. "You become psychologically dependent when you say to yourself, 'I get through my day better with pot; I need it.' If pot affects your sleep, work, appetite, emotions, or ability to socialize, that's cause for concern."
"I Learned It By Watching You"
Sure, pot might help a mom relax, but the habit may seem less harmless if her kids pick it up down the line. The parents I talked to hide their stashes, because they don't want their children to become pot smokers, even if they do it themselves. With good reason: Marijuana, like any drug, is dangerous to children's developing brains. "There is something called pruning that happens in the brain of an adolescent," says drug expert and New York City psychiatrist Julie Holland, M.D. "In earlier years, kids' brains are making connections and growing bushy with information. In the late teen years, the brain starts remodeling itself." Drugs can interfere with this fragile, ever-changing architecture and leave young brains more vulnerable to mental health problems like psychosis.
But if a mom smokes pot, isn't she pretty much guaranteeing that her child will, too? "Parents are definitely role models," Sophy says, but it's not a foregone conclusion. "I have adult patients who smoke pot who have kids that don't want anything to do with it, and I have others who don't touch drugs, but their kids are out of control. It's more about genetics and mental health." Still, Jennifer, 33, a juvenile probation officer in Pennsylvania, says there are plenty of ways that smoking pot can hurt your kids, even if they don't follow in your footsteps. "Pot-smoking parents are essentially telling kids that it's okay to obey the law when you want to," she says, "but that if it isn't a law you agree with, go ahead and break it." The fact is, recreational pot use is illegal throughout the country. Depending on where you live, there can be consequences including jail time, fines, and probation. Even in California there are legal risks, particularly for parents. Sophy is also the medical director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Children, where one of his jobs is to help determine whether kids should be taken away from drug-using parents. Every day he sees parents who have underestimated the repercussions of smoking pot - in rare cases, he's seen children sent to live with relatives.
In light of those consequences, perhaps Squirrelster McSquirrelstein no longer seems as adorable. "I find that the older my children get, the more my opinion on pot being okay changes," says occasional pot-smoker Jamie, whose kids are 12, 10, and 8. "I think it's a sketchy thing to do around kids, especially preteens. We went away with some friends last week to a lake, and the dad smokes daily. He kept going out to 'chop wood,' and he'd come in reeking of marijuana. It bothered me: What if the kids smell it and ask about it?" It's hard to teach your kids honesty if you're skulking around, engaging in criminal activity in the garage. Cassandra, 36, a mom of three from Portland, OR, who smokes pot about once a month, has simply resolved to lie to her kids about her drug use. "I think it's a parent's job to tell kids to stay away from drugs. If my kids ask me if I smoked pot, I'll lie," she says. "I lie about Santa Claus; I think I can lie about drugs."
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