With Spike In Teen Drug Use, Parents Examine Their Role

A new national survey on Drug Use and Health shows that teenagers are using marijuana more often and at younger ages. The weekly parenting segment explores ways teens get their hands on marijuana and how parents and guardians can better spark dialogues and develop relationships that will lower the chances of teens abusing marijuana. Host Michel Martin speaks with regular parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martina, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now, we just heard from Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy about new figures from the national survey on drug use and health. And he described how 1 in 10 kids between 12 and 17 used an illegal drug in the past month, that according to the survey.

That all makes us want to hear what the moms have to say about it, so we invited our regular guest Jolene Ivey. She happens to be a member of the Maryland legislature. She's the co-founder of a parenting support group called the Mocha Moms and the mother of five boys. Also with us is Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's the author of the memoir "Crazy Love" and the anthology "Mommy Wars." And she's a mom of three. Welcome back ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-Founder, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author, "Mommy Wars"): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard the interview with Gil Kerlikowske stressing the role of parents and preventing drug abuse. And one of the things that he said -or drug use, I should say, because I think, you know, maybe there's an argument here about whether we're really talking about use or abuse.

And one of the points that he made is that the kind of acceptance of certain drugs has waxed and waned over the years. And now it seems that there's kind of national discussion around drug use that makes it more acceptable. And I wanted to know if you both agreed with that statement. Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: To a large extent, yes. I mean when we are right now in the middle of legalizing marijuana in some states already, and it could be nationally before long, when you're talking about medical uses of marijuana, of course my kids say, well, if it's got medicinal purposes, why is it illegal? Obviously, the conversation has already shifted.

MARTIN: What do you think? What do you tell your kids?

Ms. IVEY: Well, actually, I support the legalization of marijuana and we have talked about that. I have made it clear to them that even right now, even though alcohol is legal, it's not legal for them. And there are good reasons for that. And I wouldn't want them to smoke marijuana either. I'm not exactly sure how it would affect them, but I don't think it's worth finding out.

MARTIN: So, basically you say that the same rules as alcohol apply. Alcohol may be legal, but it's not legal for you.

Ms. IVEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: It's that this is a grownup thing.

Ms. IVEY: And the problem right now with is being illegal is the people who are selling it aren't going to be carding anybody to say, are you old enough to smoke? No. They would sell it to my 10-year-old if he showed up with money. And I would rather have us in a position where there are responsible people who are regulating it, who are in charge of whether or not they're going to sell it to someone.

MARTIN: And who pay a price if they sell it to the wrong people.

Ms. IVEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

Ms. STEINER: You know, I was surprised. I feel like what I've heard for decades has been that drug usage has been going down among kids. And it's definitely clear to me that parenting has changed so much since I was a kid in the '70s and '80s. And parents are much more involved in their kids' lives and talking candidly to kids about risks of drugs and other kinds of dangers of adolescence. So I was really surprised and a little puzzled by the fact that the numbers seemed to be growing.

MARTIN: Speaking of sort of interesting findings in the report, the report says that in 2009, over 90 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds believed their parents would strongly disapprove of them using marijuana, and yet those same reports says that more teens are using it and at younger ages. So, Leslie, that kind of speaks to your question, what do you think is going on here?

Ms. STEINER: You know, I think that the movement to legalize marijuana is clearly gaining steam and gaining a lot of visibility and that the kids are aware of that. And so there's more buzz about marijuana. And so perhaps that's driving more experimentation.

And, you know, I think anybody who has a teenager knows that just because you disapprove of something doesn't mean your kid isn't going to do it. And although the study did show that talking to kids about drug usage doesn't necessarily lower their chances of doing it. That monitoring kids' daily life does decrease the incidents.

But I think it's hard to parse these details when you're talking about something that's illegal and when you're talking about teenagers because of course they're going to hide this and not necessarily tell the truth about what their behavior is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about federal figures that show that first use of marijuana is occurring among younger kids and that more kids are using it. We're talking about why that might be, with our parenting regulars Leslie Morgan Steiner and Jolene Ivey.

So, of course, now the tricky question, what do you tell your own kids when they ask you the question that all kids ask, what about you, mommy? Did you ever do X, Y or Z? Leslie, what do you tell them?

Ms. STEINER: Well, you know, I smoked a lot of marijuana when I was a teenager and I drank a lot, so much so that I gave it all up when I went to college. I actually, the last time I drank alcohol was the day that I turned legal at 18 in the District of Columbia.

MARTIN: Well, that's a switch.

Ms. STEINER: I know. It was really, it was, trust me, it was a kind of strange college experience to be getting sober when everybody else was just starting to experiment, it seemed. I talked to them about it candidly because of my relationship with them.

But it makes me so uncomfortable because I feel like I can't stop them from experimenting. And I wish that I could wave a magic wand and give them all my hard-earned wisdom from all the mistakes that I made as a teenager, but I have this sinking feeling that they're going to have to experiment on their own to get that wisdom.

Now, there are some things I don't tell them, and also I do not tell them gory details.

MARTIN: Sure.

Ms. STEINER: I don't tell them specifics and I also, I don't tell them the truth about how much I enjoyed it because I don't think that that is a great message for them. I think all they need to know is that I did it, that I learned a lot of hard lessons and that I don't do it anymore.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you?

Ms. IVEY: I like to keep a lot of my truths to myself. I don't share everything with my kids. I tell them as little as I can get away with when it comes to a subject like this. I have been honest with them, but not extremely honest. And I also have been very honest with them about how important I think it is for them to not do drugs.

MARTIN: What is the most effective message in your view? Is it a health message or a sports message that could keep you from being good at sports? I mean at this stage this could, you know, impair your ability to have babies probably isn't a very compelling, you know, message.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: They don't want to hear all that about sperm counts or whatever, but what do you think is an effective message? Or is it the same message that you applied for alcohol? Which is to say, listen, there are things that adults do that are just not for you.

Ms. IVEY: I have a two-part message. One part of the message is right now it is illegal for everyone to smoke marijuana. I mean unless you live in California or someplace like that, or D.C., I suppose. And in our family we have to obey the law because that's what my husband does for a living. He puts people in jail for breaking the law. And how would it be if our family were going around just breaking the law? If my kid gets caught, they're going to be on the front page of the Washington Post. I don't want that to happen and it has lifelong effects. So, the legal part is part of it.

And then the rest of it has to do with health. And, fortunately, my kids have seen some of their friends or friends of friends who are under the influence and they just don't like the way it looks.

MARTIN: There's so much to talk about here and we're almost out of time. But I am curious about how you react to Director Kerlikowske's argument that, you know, we're already dealing with alcohol and we're already dealing with prescription drugs and we don't need one more thing.

Ms. IVEY: I think he's being pretty impractical when he acts like by keeping it illegal that that's going to do something to help people. It doesn't help anybody. It's not helping our tax base. It's not helping the actual health of our children and adults who might be smoking marijuana. If it were regulated, it would be safer if it were legal. And I think it's silly to act like if we keep it illegal we're protecting anyone.

MARTIN: Okay. Leslie, what do you think about his argument?

Ms. STEINER: Well, I'm neutral about the legalization of marijuana and perhaps it's helpful in terms of getting kids to delay using it or not using it, that it's illegal. But I don't see that as a compelling argument. I think of it as being very similar to alcohol and that we should be consistent and honest as a society.

MARTIN: Can I ask you finally, before we let you go, how do you feel about the kind of conversations we're having around drug use now? There was a point at which, you know, all kinds of songs were being written about getting high. And it was just so much a part of the culture. And then now we've kind of passed through this phase again where it's discouraged. I mean the three martini lunch used to be, I don't know, I never worked at - I don't know - I wasn't around for that, you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You don't have martinis when you're a firefighter or police officer, that's not part of the deal. It's just kind of the family trait. So I'm just curious about when you think about where we are as a society right now talking about these issues, compared to when you were growing up, I'm just curious what thoughts come to you.

Ms. STEINER: Well, you know, one of the things that I liked the most about smoking marijuana when I was a teenager is that my parents had no idea what it was. And they couldn't recognize the signs when I was stoned. It was a big joke. So I think the fact that we're talking about it is probably the biggest deterrent because I think parents talking about it makes it so incredibly uncool. So I think that that in and of itself is a really good thing.

I'm really against my own glamorization of my pot-smoking days. And I try really hard not to talk about it that way in front of my kids. And to try as hard as I can to be - to have a cool head and to be - like Jolene said, to talk about the facts of it. It's probably very powerful. But I can't be a hypocrite. And I don't have this one figured out at all.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the mother of three. She's the author of the memoir "Crazy Love" and the anthology "Mommy Wars." She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with our other mom regular, Jolene Ivey, the mother of five, a co-founder of the parenting support group, the Mocha Moms and she's a member of the Maryland State Legislature.

Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks a lot.

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