A once-prohibited vice and one of the targets of the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign of the 1980s, marijuana is set to become legal in Canada next summer — so it's high time to talk to your kids about it.
"There are important questions, and hard questions, that parents might be wrestling with, like, 'How do we reconcile this when we've told our child all along this is never to happen, and all of a sudden here it is happening?'" said Naomi Kruse, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils.
On July 1, 2018, the taboo topic of toking will become a government-backed business, complete with storefronts and advertising.
The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba advises parents should not wait until there is an issue, but should be proactive by talking with kids early on.
"We're already getting questions from some of our youth counsellors, our school-based counsellors, who have had parents ask, 'How is this going to affect my child and what should I do?'" said Catarina Witt, AFM communications co-ordinator.
The best approach is for parents to educate themselves on the realities of cannabis and then be "open about listening and having talks" with their kids, she said.
"Be available to hear, to listen and invite the opinions of your youth. They do have an opinion and once someone's heard from them, they're more likely to listen to our opinion, too."
Kids need to know about cannabis, its pros and cons, and why the government decided to legalize it, both Witt and Kruse said, noting it's the only way to peel away the myths and misconceptions.
Cannabis was first banned in Canada in 1923, with regulated medical cannabis becoming legal in 2001 for its health benefits.
The current Liberal government took things further, deciding Canada's current system of marijuana prohibition doesn't prevent young people from using the drug and too many end up with unnecessary criminal records for possession.
Instead, the government has decided to put different reins on marijuana — those of regulation and restriction — to keep it out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals.
"Some kids who see that might say, 'Well, it's got these benefits and now the government has decided we're going to do that, so it's OK,'" said Kruse.
While it has been approved by Health Canada for medicinal use, marijuana "is not harmless," Witt said, pointing to negative impacts on physical and psychological health as well as workplace and school performance.
For parents flummoxed on how to talk about it, the AFM's website has an explainer about cannabis, with general information about the effects and risks associated with its use. There are also links to research, statistics and other sources for information.
"There's no easy answer and everyone's going to have their own approach, but there are some strategies and tips," Witt said.
The foundation is also in the process of assembling a resource kit specifically focused on the legalization of cannabis, which will contain a guidance letter to parents.
They hope to have it ready by mid-December but "definitely before everything goes through in July," Witt said.
Schools need to involve parents
Kruse, whose organization calls itself the "parental voice within the public education system in Manitoba," expects schools will be involved in educating students on the topic and urges them to involve parents.
That will not only give parents guidance on how to speak to their own kids, it will go a long way in reducing the anxiety parents feel when their children are going to be taught "potentially sensitive outcomes," she said.
"They often get caught up in the kind of rhetoric of, 'It's a scary subject, I don't want my kid learning about this because if they do, they're going to want to do it,'" Kruse said. "It often feels threatening because it is new and it's unexpected.
"If the opportunity is first given to parents to learn about what exactly is going to be taught there is a greater comfort level on the part of parents. And then they can feel more confident about having those conversations with their kids as well."
And if kids are receiving a consistent message from the schools and parents about the realities, legalities and potential dangers of marijuana, "then they're in a position to make those decisions," Kruse said.
Same old road, different destination
It's important to recognize we've been down this road before, Kruse and Witt said.
There was trepidation when sex education was introduced in school, when government-backed casinos opened and "when there was adults-only stores going into neighbourhoods, there was fears that was somehow going to impact children," Kruse noted.
The subject matter might differ but the terrain is well travelled.
"Think about [alcohol] prohibition back when. It's just a different substance now," said Witt.
Kids already see people drinking around them and smoking cigarettes. They see those products advertised and being sold. The same goes for caffeine, energy drinks and prescription drugs — all things prevalent and available, but potentially dangerous if abused.
There's an understanding around all of that, Witt said.
"Hopefully, that's what's going to happen with marijuana. The messaging around it is all the same," she said.
"The reality is, marijuana is already an issue. It is being used at a higher rate in Canada than in other first-world countries."
The legalization of cannabis provides an opportunity for those who ignored the elephant in the room. Instead of pretending it doesn't exist, they can address it head on and make sure their kids are equipped to make the right choices, Kruse said.
Just how that plays out "depends on the parents and the kids and how open to conversation families are," she said.
"Every family's going to have a different approach and a lot of it is going to depend on the maturity of the child."