When Michelle, a 40-year-old lawyer from Connecticut, visited her son at college in Colorado, it did not occur to her at first that she would be venturing from a state where recreational marijuana was still against the law to one that had recently voted to legalize it.
But when she did realize it, she decided it would be fun to get high legally — with her son.
Michelle and Schuyler, a 19-year-old organismal biology and ecology major, are pioneers in the brave new world of pot use. (To preserve their privacy, both requested that Yahoo News not use their last name.)
Over the last four and a half years, eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot for recreational use; medical marijuana is legal in 29 states plus D.C. Strictly speaking, selling or possessing marijuana is still a federal crime, although rarely enforced except against large-scale growers or dealers; the new administration may be rethinking that policy. (Across our northern border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just introduced legislation that would make Canada the second nation in the world to completely legalize marijuana as a consumer product.) Before long, the U.S. marijuana industry will be creating more jobs than manufacturing — and joints may be as commonplace as pints.
How is this tectonic shift in society affecting our most important relationships? To find out, Yahoo partnered with the Marist Poll to produce an exclusive, in-depth look at weed and the American family, based on a survey of 1,122 Americans 18 and older.
As the law evolves, and as social attitudes evolve along with it, more and more Americans are overcoming old taboos and incorporating pot into their family lives. Marijuana use has become surprisingly open and acceptable in families where adults use marijuana — and, in fact, the majority of Americans who say they use marijuana are parents (54 percent).
Again and again, the research shows that adults who have at least some experience with marijuana — whether they use it regularly or have simply tried it once — are much less likely to be concerned about its effects on themselves or others. This suggests that as weed becomes more widespread in the age of legalization, more Americans and their families will start to feel the same way.
Yet these changes are not without their challenges.
What’s clear from the Yahoo News/Marist Poll is that pot is now a bigger part of family life than ever before. Kids aren’t hiding it from their parents as much as they used to. Many parents aren’t even hiding it from their kids.
Already nearly half — 47 percent — of user parents (people who use the drug at least once or twice a year) say they have consumed marijuana in front of their (usually adult) children, shared it with them or done both. And more than one in four users say they’ve consumed marijuana in front of or with their own parents.
On the other hand, there is still a stigma attached to the practice. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they would have less respect for a parent who uses marijuana in front of their child — and even among those who use the drug occasionally, 64 percent agree.
Fitting marijuana into your family life is, in short, complicated — as Michelle and Schuyler would be the first to admit.
Initially, Michelle had a commonplace reason for flying west: to visit her son at college. But then she realized her friend’s birthday was coming up, and a couple of additional invitations were extended. Someone mentioned marijuana. Ooh, Michelle thought, that could be nice. Before long, she was booking a “420-friendly” Airbnb and browsing nearby recreational marijuana shops on Yelp.
Michelle is hardly a pothead; she probably “smokes a couple of times a year,” she says, and only with friends. But Michelle did use more regularly as a teenager, and when Schuyler was born, she decided she would handle the drug differently than her own “strict Catholic Latino” parents had: She would be candid with Schuyler about her experiences and allow him to experiment too — within certain parameters.
“For us, pot wasn’t going to be a problem in and of itself, but ‘Are you doing well in school? Do you have a good attitude? Fine — you can smoke on the weekends,’” Michelle explains. “If I had just said no, I wouldn’t have known what was going on with Schuyler, and that’s scarier.”
As Michelle planned her Colorado trip, the prospect of getting high with Schuyler intrigued her. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is the next phase of our relationship,’” she says. “We can have fun together in an adult way.”
Schuyler seemed excited too. Michelle and her friends picked him up at school, then drove to Denver. At the local dispensary, Michelle says she was “like a kid in a candy store. I was buying Schuyler whatever he wanted. They had all these different things: gummy bears, chocolates, pot you can smoke to make you happy, another kind for joint pain. We were having the best time.”
Schuyler, however, has a different memory of that evening.
“I did not enjoy it,” he says. “My mom and her friends bought way too much stuff. They all just got trashed and were like, ‘We’re going to watch “Bad Boys II”!’ And I’m like, ‘What the f*** is this? I’m going outside.’ They were way more into it than I was.”
A few months later, Schuyler finally confronted his mom about her visit. “He was like, ‘Yeah, that totally weirded me out,’” Michelle recalls. “I was really disappointed.”
Today, Schuyler struggles to describe how disorienting the experience was. “I don’t know,” he mutters. “I’ve always been mature for my age. And I couldn’t help but feel, in that moment, like my mom wasn’t as mature as me. It was kind of like, ‘This is not how it’s supposed to be.’”
But how is it supposed to be?
When it comes to weed, the American family is entering uncharted territory — and Michelle and Schuyler are not alone in their confusion over the rules they’re supposed to follow and the roles they’re supposed to play.
New laws and new attitudes are making life more complicated for every family that deals with the issue. Some are happily getting high. Some are celebrating the change. Others are dealing with anxiety, uncertainly, even shame. How do I persuade my kids not to experiment with pot when suddenly it’s for sale — in brownie form — at the corner dispensary? Do I still need to hide my habit from my husband now that it’s no longer illegal?
The first thing to know is that, according to the poll, most Americans who’ve tried marijuana at some point in their lives — a whopping 65 percent of them, in fact — now have children. The same goes for occasional users, who use pot at least once or twice a year (54 percent) and regular users, who use it at least once or twice a month (51 percent) — which means that as America transforms itself into a more marijuana-friendly society, families are set to take center stage.
We’ve all heard about the “mainstreaming of marijuana” in recent years, and it’s true that pot use has become more acceptable overall. (According to the poll, the nation as a whole is now divided — 49 percent in favor, 47 percent against — on the question of legalizing marijuana for recreational use). One of the more striking consequences of this mainstreaming is that it is altering our attitudes about children and pot.
Overall, Americans are less worried about children smoking marijuana than they are about children smoking cigarettes, with 24 percent naming cigarettes as their top concern and only 21 percent naming weed.
That’s a far cry from the days of “Reefer Madness.” So why the change? Perhaps it’s because most adults now think marijuana is better for you than Miller High Life or Marlboros. (Only one of these substances, after all, is regularly described as “medicinal.”) By a margin of more than four to one, Americans say that regular tobacco use (76 percent) is a bigger health risk than regular marijuana use (18 percent) — and they say the same thing about alcohol (72 percent vs. 20 percent).
Compare parents who’ve tried pot with parents who haven’t, and the shift becomes even starker.
Sure, parents as a whole still cite pot as the top concern for their children (24 percent). But only six percent of parents who actually use marijuana share this view. In fact, both pot users and “triers” — the 52 percent of Americans who’ve tried the drug at least once in their lives — put it at the bottom of a list of concerns for their children, behind cigarettes, alcohol, sex and cheating on a test.
A Los Angeles lawyer and his daughter embody how parental priorities are evolving. After each realized the other was also a pot smoker, they developed a winking goodbye routine whenever the daughter went out at night.
“Don’t drink and drive,” he would say.
“I don’t drink and drive,” she would answer.
“Don’t smoke weed and drive.”
“I don’t smoke weed and drive.”
“Don’t do coke and drive.”
“I don’t do coke.”
Across the board, the Yahoo News/Marist Poll shows that Americans who have at least tried marijuana are a lot more likely to feel that the drug is compatible with family life than those who’ve never touched it. Fifty-six percent of pot “triers” who are also in a relationship say their spouse or partner would approve of their recreational use if it were legal. Sixty percent of parents who’ve tried pot think their kids would either approve of their mom or dad’s recreational pot use or wouldn’t care. Among parents who use marijuana, 69 percent support prescribing legal medical marijuana to children — and a full 75 percent consider the drug to be socially acceptable.
Among all parents — including those who don’t use or haven’t tried pot — these numbers are significantly lower.
Even mixing pot with pregnancy isn’t the taboo it once was, at least among users. Only about one in five Americans (21 percent) believe it’s OK for a pregnant woman to use marijuana for easing nausea or pain. But that figure jumps to 40 percent among regular users of weed.
“I figured out how I could curb the nausea but not feel like a stony-pony,” says Melissa Vaughn, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom in the Boston area who ate three to four mini pot brownies a day during her pregnancy. “There were no side effects. It completely stopped my nausea.”’ Yet for Melissa, the drug did have a downside. At one of her prenatal visits, she nervously told her doctor that marijuana had stopped her debilitating morning sickness — then watched as he entered the information into her record. “When my son was born, they had to collect his meconium to get it tested and make sure there was no THC in his system — because then I was going to have to go to social services,” she explains. “Isn’t that horrible?”
Still, despite any remaining risks, the Yahoo News/Marist Poll finds that family members who use marijuana have become remarkably open about it. Ninety-five percent say their spouse, partner or significant other knows they use it; the same percentage say their significant other knows how often they use it. Eighty-two percent of users in a relationship have either used pot in front of their spouse, partner or significant other, shared it with them or done both. Sixty percent of parents who use marijuana say their children are aware that they use it, and a majority (54 percent) of them have spoken directly to their kids about their use. Similarly, 72 percent of adult children who use pot say their parents know that they do.
Diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, 69-year-old Michael Good, a political science professor in Oakland, Calif., was no stranger to weed; he’d smoked some as a “hippie” in the 1960s but not much since. Later, he’d turned a blind eye to his son’s teenage use — but as a senior citizen he insisted that Jason accompany him on his first visit to a dispensary. “It was a fun experience for us,” Jason says. “There was something subversive about it.”
At the very least, today’s families are discussing pot; 73 percent of parents say they’ve had the talk with their kids. But that represents a sharp break from earlier generations. Overall, 60 percent of Americans say their parents did not talk to them about marijuana, and the older the person, the less common those conversations were; 72 percent of baby boomers never had the talk with their parents, and among members of the Silent and Greatest generations (those over age 69), that number climbs to 95 percent. (Perhaps the more surprising statistic is that among this cohort, who grew up in the 1930s, when pot was a furtive indulgence of jazz musicians and assorted bohemians, as many as 5 percent did get a lecture about marijuana from their parents.) Likewise, 73 percent of the over-69 group say marijuana is a health risk, compared with 59 percent of baby boomers, 52 percent of Gen Xers — and only 35 percent of millennials.
Ultimately, the data hints that more and more American families will soon experience what Michelle and Schuyler have already gone through. When Schuyler was a kid, his mom was open with him about her past pot use; when Schuyler first tried marijuana as a ninth-grader, he was open with his mom. Michelle may have been more permissive than most mothers, but she still set boundaries: Get good grades, wait until the weekend to smoke, don’t smoke if you’re not feeling well (both Schuyler and Michelle struggle with depression) — that sort of thing. And just like most teenagers, Schuyler pushed those boundaries, overindulging at times, getting depressed and demanding to know why, if pot was OK, he couldn’t smoke it during the week too.
“The whole thing definitely caused friction between me and my mom,” Schuyler says. “We had different expectations, and they changed all the time. It felt like one day I was allowed to and the next day I wasn’t.”
“Sometimes, Schuyler seemed to wish it was just a straight ‘no,’” Michelle admits.
The summer after senior year, Michelle finally gave in and let Schuyler and his friends smoke in her sunroom; at one point, she went out and showed them how to roll a proper joint. To this day, Michelle’s disapproving mother still forwards her news stories about how marijuana is a gateway drug (a view shared by 20 percent of Americans, including 38 percent of those 70 and older).
And yet both Schuyler and Michelle survived — and in some ways, they seem stronger for it. Schuyler is doing well in college; now he only smokes occasionally, and for that he his credits his mom, at least in part. “She didn’t create this major deal around it, so I never did drugs as a rebellion,” he says. “When I got to college, I wasn’t like some of my friends who drank too much and had a problem. I didn’t go crazy, like, ‘What is this marijuana?!’”
Michelle, meanwhile, says she wouldn’t do anything differently. “I think, in the long run, I’d rather have Schuyler trust me and share with me — even if he sometimes thinks I’m an idiot or that I’m embarrassing or whatever,” she explains. “In the end, I always think openness is the better way to go.”
Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series: