DENVER -- Michael Jolton was a young father with a 5-year-old son when Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000. Now he's got three boys, the oldest near adulthood, and finds himself repeatedly explaining green-leafed marijuana ads and "free joint" promotions endemic in his suburban hometown.
"I did not talk to my oldest son about marijuana when he was 8 years old. We got to talk about fun stuff. Now with my youngest who's 8, we have to talk about this," said Jolton, a consultant from Lakewood.
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A marijuana opponent with a just-say-no philosophy, Jolton, 48, is among legions of American parents finding the "drug talk" increasingly problematic as more states allow medical marijuana or decriminalize its use. Colorado and Washington state have measures on their Nov. 6 ballot that would go a further step and legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults.
Parent-child conversations about pot "have become extraordinarily complicated," said Stephen Pasierb, president of the Partnership at Drugfree.org, which provides resources for parents concerned about youth drug use.
Legalization and medical use of marijuana have "created a perception among kids that this is no big deal," Pasierb said. "You need a calm, rational conversation, not yelling and screaming, and you need the discipline to listen to your child."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, says the family conversations "are becoming a lot more real" because most of today's parents likely tried marijuana themselves.
"Parents know a lot more about what they're talking about, and kids probably suspect that their parents did this when they were younger and didn't get in trouble with drugs," Nadelmann said. "There's still hypocrisy, but the level of honesty and frankness in the parent-child dialogue about marijuana is increasing every year."
Michigan, Colorado and Washington are among 17 states where medical marijuana is legal. More than a dozen states, and many municipalities, have scrapped criminal penalties for small-scale pot possession or made it a low-priority crime for police.
In Colorado, hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries and growers operate legally, and ads invite new patients to try their pot.
In Boulder, Colo., home to nation's largest college pro-marijuana protest each spring, city councilwoman KC Becker doesn't oppose Boulder's thriving marijuana business but realizes that, within her family, she'll have to approach the topic differently than her parents did.
"My parents definitely didn't talk to me about drugs, ever," Becker said. Marijuana legalization, she said, "does force you to talk about it and explain it -- but that's not necessarily bad."
What will Becker tell her 4-year-old when he learns to read the pot ads?
"I'll say, 'That's a store where people can get medicine to help them when they feel sick, but you have to be responsible in using it and old enough,"' Becker said.
Trish Nixon of Colorado Springs had two children living at home when Colorado legalized medical marijuana. She tackled the topic head-on, evolving from a "It's against the law -- don't do it" warning to a more nuanced message.
"I would explain why somebody might need to use it, the right reasons some people need it and why some people are using it for the wrong reasons," Nixon said.
Her daughter, Krista, now 21, said she never considered marijuana a big deal. "My generation just grew up with it," she said, though adding that she's never used it.
Recent national surveys indicate many teens view marijuana as relatively benign, with more of them now smoking pot then cigarettes.
Linda Pearlman Gordon, a psychotherapist from Chevy Chase, Md., who often counsels families, says a child's well-being -- rather than fear of arrest -- is increasingly likely to be the focus of parent/child conversations as the legalization drive continues.
She says parents should strive to discourage any drug usage that isolates a child socially or inhibits their maturation.
"It's troubling when anyone uses a substance to self-medicate, to push away difficult feelings," she said. "You want to make sure your child, if having difficult feelings, knows there are healthy ways to deal with it."
Stephen Pasierb of the Partnership at Drugfree.org says it's vital for parents to engage their children in relaxed discussions -- "See where your kid is at. Ask them, `What do you think?"' -- and to do so before they reach middle school, where pot use is surging.
"Kids are willing to press all of mom's and dad's buttons, but they don't want to lose the ultimate respect of their parents," he said. "It's important for parents not to say, `If you smoke marijuana, we'll throw you out of the house' but they should say they'll be disappointed."
His advice to parents who partook of pot in their youth:
"You should not lie to your child, but you don't owe them a blow by blow explanation of every party you went to."