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Legalized Pot Creates Quandary For Adults In Wash.


In Washington State, parents and drug counselors are in a quandary. Now that recreational marijuana is legal, they're wondering how to talk to kids about pot.

NPR's Martin Kaste has that story from Seattle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ten, nine, eight, seven...

CROWD: Nine, eight, seven...

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Under the Space Needle, marijuana enthusiasts counted down to the moment of legalization.

CROWD: Two, one...


KASTE: It's not actually legal to smoke pot in a public place, but that didn't stop this young crowd from generating a celebratory haze for the TV news cameras.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Woo, smoke. Just smoke it. Light it up.


KASTE: And in Washington State schools, scenes like that have made an impression. Kelly Kerby should know, she does drug prevention work at a Seattle middle school.

KELLY KERBY: I know they did not pass this just to make my life miserable, but it does nonetheless.


KASTE: Kerby has a cozy office, where kids sit on the sofa for confidential counseling. And some of them are pretty open to her about how stoked they are.

KERBY: They're going to make it legal and I'm going to smoke. My friends, we're just going to smoke in the streets and not get caught. And kind of, you know, like ha-ha-ha. And it's like, OK, well, that's not what the law says that you can do. But then you have a bunch of people at the Space Needle smoking, and they can only get stern verbal warnings from police officers. The message sent to youth is, OK, that's allowed.

KASTE: It's not allowed for kids. The new law allows possession of less than an ounce for people 21 and older. But Kerby says the fact that pot is legal for adults makes kids think it's harmless and it removes some of the stigma.

ROGER ROTHMAN: I think marijuana being illegal has deterred some people from using it.

KASTE: Roger Rothman is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington. He's studied marijuana abuse since the 1980s. He believes legalization may cause an uptick in use, at least at first. Nevertheless, he supported legalization because he thinks prohibition has led to an absolutist message for kids.

ROTHMAN: When you look at drug education materials, mostly produced by the government, what you never see acknowledged is the truth that many people, most people, who smoke marijuana occasionally and moderately are not harmed.

KASTE: Rothman believes pot can be harmful, especially for teenagers' developing brains. But instead of offering what he calls propaganda, he thinks parents should talk to their kids like this...

ROTHMAN: If you were to start using marijuana, if you were to start drinking alcohol, if you were to start using other drugs and you were drawn into using them regularly, the kind of danger that I'm worried about might happen. You'd get derailed and it's something that would break my heart.

KASTE: Parents around the state are working on their speeches. Mary Michael Collins is a mother of teenagers. She opposed legalization, but now that it has happened, she says it has led to more honest discussions with her kids.

MARY MICHAEL COLLINS: I could say - it's illegal, it's bad, it's terrible, don't do that. And that keeps me from having to have the real conversation, which is - why would you want to do it? What's the impact on your brain?

KASTE: Statewide, drug education professionals are wondering if they'll have to adjust their message, or even their vocabulary, for the new reality of legal marijuana.

DAN BISSENET: It feels strange to say it.

KASTE: Dan Bissenet(ph) is a program manager for the Puget Sound Educational Service District. He helps schools with their drug use prevention. He's not sure what to think of legalization but he is sure that the timing is terrible. That's because budget cuts have been rolling back drug education programs in schools just when those efforts are most needed.

BISSENET: I have heard very little, if anything, in terms of clear leadership. I'm not sure who's going to do it but it needs to be done. We need to prepare and we need to do it fairly quickly because this is at hand.

KASTE: The initiative that legalized pot does address this. It pays for new drug education efforts with a special tax on legal marijuana. But that assumes the federal government will let the state set up official marijuana stores and generate the tax. But it's not at all clear yet that that'll ever happen. As it stands right now, parents are increasingly on their own as they try to explain why they're allowed to smoke pot while their kids are not. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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