A few years ago, my high school daughter came home talking about rumors of pot gummy bears circulating at our local middle school. Until then I didn’t realize that I needed to add edible cannabis to the list of topics to address with teenagers in my care. For adolescents, the widespread legalization of marijuana has lowered many of the barriers to experimenting with it. Alongside a range of vaporizers, oils and tinctures, they have increasing access to edibles — pot-infused cookies, brownies, candies and more. This means the conversations parents need to have with their older kids about marijuana have a new wrinkle. The good news is that many of the tactics used to navigate other tricky topics with teens can be deployed to talk about why edibles are not as harmless as they might look. Here’s more on what to cover and how.
Just because they’re legal doesn’t make them safe.
Many teens already underestimate the risks associated with marijuana. Petal Modeste, an associate dean at Columbia Law School and host of the “Parenting for the Future” podcast noted that the shifting laws impact teenagers in a couple of different ways. “Legalization makes marijuana seem less dangerous while also making marijuana products more available,” she said. With regard to edibles in particular, one study found that the likelihood that teens will try them rises the longer cannabis has been legal in a community, and with the number of dispensaries in the area.
Dr. Jacob Borodovsky, the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist at Dartmouth’s Center for Technology and Behavioral Health, said the marketing worries him. If you live in a state where pot is legal, you’re likely to see roadside billboards featuring images of pot leaves and catchy slogans like “Think Higher.” “It’s one thing to legalize marijuana, and another thing to post it all over social media and billboards,” he said. Indeed, the more marijuana ads adolescents see, the more likely they are to take a positive view of cannabis, to try it and to experience negative consequences as a result.
To address this, parents might acknowledge the mixed messages that teens receive around marijuana products, especially if they regularly encounter advertisements and dispensaries promoting them. Start by saying, “I get it. Pot doesn’t seem like a big deal. But please remember that things can be legal and dangerous — take tanning beds and cigarettes, for example.”
Edibles may seem less harmful than other substances.
Unlike pot that is smoked, edibles can look harmless, not to mention delicious. They can also be passed around in open view. And with no smoke to detect or trace of alcohol on one’s breath, edibles can offer a stealthy high. Kids can ingest them between classes, at dances or in the stands at football games without having to hide a trail.
All of these factors might spur a tween or teen to consider trying edibles. This may be especially true for young people who are impulsive or thrill-seeking, traits associated with vulnerability to substance use. Dr. Fred Muench, the president of the Partnership to End Addiction, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families and individuals prevent and recover from addiction, hopes parents will “jump into their kid’s shoes” and recognize how hard it can be for young people to handle tempting situations.
To get a conversation going, parents can ask teens what they know about edibles, or what they would do if a friend wanted to split a pot brownie. From there, parents might encourage teens to consider exactly how they’d say no, and what might make it difficult to refuse. Would the teen be concerned about losing a friend if they don’t try it? “If yes,” said Dr. Muench, “then they need to re-examine the friendship. If no, then there you go.” And should the teen be daring and curious? Here, adults could focus on safety concerns. “Even if you don’t get caught,” a parent might say, “you could get hurt. That’s what I worry about, and that’s what I want you to be worried about too.”
It’s easy to take too much.
“Smoking cannabis and ingesting it are two different beasts,” said Dr. Eric Kaczor, an emergency medicine physician and toxicologist who practices at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. While the effects of inhaled marijuana often begin within minutes, edibles can take at least 30 to 60 minutes to kick in as the psychoactive compounds work their way through the digestive system.
Kids who expect to feel rapid effects when consuming edibles may become impatient and take additional servings. “They ingest an extra dose or two thinking the first was not enough to get the job done,” said Dr. Kaczor, “and end up taking way too much trying to chase a high.”
Even when edibles arrive in accurately labeled packaging, teenagers may not understand how much THC (the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis) they are actually ingesting. A single cookie, for example, might contain hundreds of milligrams of THC meant to be consumed in multiple servings. And when it comes to edibles obtained through unregulated channels, all bets are off. “If you’re buying stuff online or taking a homemade product made by someone else,” said Dr. Kaczor, “you can’t be sure it even contains cannabis product, let alone the potency.”
To address these realities with a teen, underscore how edibles differ from other forms of marijuana. Let them know: “Edibles are tricky. The effects are delayed; it can be hard to know how strong they are, and you may not know what’s even in them. It’s easy for things to get out of control.”
The effects can be scary.
An important message to communicate to teens is that consuming high doses of THC, either from trying to get high more quickly, or from not realizing how much has been ingested, can lead to overwhelming results. High doses of THC can cause a range of effects including lethargy, confusion, impaired coordination, intense anxiety, rapid heart rate and vomiting. Seizures and respiratory depression — breathing slowly or ineffectively — are especially frightening symptoms that have been known to occur.
Teens should know how the substances they may encounter affect the brain and body. And adolescents can be especially receptive to adult guidance when we ground our concerns about drugs in basic biological realities, as opposed to arbitrary moral or legal considerations.
To do this, parents could say something along these lines: “Consuming too much marijuana can, among other things, really mess with your central nervous and cardiovascular systems. You might feel panicked or lose track of where you are, your heart rate could go through the roof or you might start vomiting of having other symptoms that would land you in the emergency room. With edibles, you can accidentally find yourself in a situation that is very scary — and that is the last thing I want for you.”
Teens are uniquely vulnerable.
Any conversation with teens about edibles should be treated as an opportunity to reinforce the danger that marijuana use can pose to the parts of the brain involved in learning, memory and goal-directed behavior, especially for teenagers. Point out that no matter how pot gets into your body — whether you smoke it, eat it or drink it — marijuana is hard on a developing brain. You might say something like, “I care about you and don’t want anything to get in the way of your ability to learn, focus or think on your feet now, or down the line.”
In addition to addressing the dangers of THC itself, parents can also detail the risks of being high, particularly if a teen might end up behind the wheel of a car or in an unpredictable situation, such as a large party. When things go sideways — as they certainly can when teenagers convene — young people are always safest when they have their wits about them.
At times, teens use edibles as part of a pattern of regular use that also involves smoking and vaping marijuana. If you suspect that an adolescent in your care might have a substance use problem, you should consult with local or online resources for guidance on how to move forward.
It’s easy to view the rise of edibles as just one more thing parents of teenagers need to worry about. While this may be true, we might also welcome the conversations that edibles allow as an opportunity to remind teenagers that — above all — we are here to help them navigate the risks they face and want them take good care of themselves.