Since medical marijuana was legalized in Oklahoma in 2018, weed has become both more prevalent and more accessible in our state, and not just for adults.
Calls to the Oklahoma Poison Center regarding pediatric marijuana ingestions (ages 0 to 5) have risen 2,070 percent from 2018 to 2022, with more than 98 percent of instances occurring in a residential setting.
Oklahoma has been called a marijuana boom state, with one of the highest number of dispensaries per capita as the market has grown so quickly.
“Even if you don’t have marijuana in your home, youth may still encounter it in other households, hear about it at school or in the media or simply see the plethora of dispensaries in the community,” said Tequia Sier, Senior Prevention Program Manager at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS). “With the bright colors, big signage and messages of wellness, it’s bringing up conversations more even with young kids.”
Sier provides her top tips and talking points to empower parents to educate their kids about the realities of marijuana.
“Sometimes we think children are too young, but with more marijuana available to young people in homes and the community, there’s a greater awareness and parents need to be having conversations even with very young children, especially if they are going to have it in the home,” said Sier.
Keep conversations with young children simple:
- Inform them marijuana is a substance that is not for children because it’s dangerous to them.
- Explain why it’s dangerous, using language they can understand, like: it will make them feel funny, make them very sleepy or dizzy and cause trouble breathing or walking. It could even cause them to need to go to the hospital.
- Teach them not to eat, drink or handle anything with the universal symbol that an item contains THC (an exclamation point on the left, marijuana leaf on the right and the words “not safe for kids or pets”).
- Advise youth not to eat candy or baked goods a friend offers unless they see the original packaging and know what’s in it as there have been instances of even young children bringing gummies or other marijuana products to school to share with classmates.
Tweens & Teens
The conversations about marijuana shifts as kids get older, and Sier says it’s important to give them a chance to share what they know and think.
“Start by asking what they have heard about marijuana,” advises Sier. “Listen first, try not to interrupt until they fully explain their understanding and try not to react negatively to what they are sharing. Hear where they are coming from and let that guide the conversation.”
Keep your conversation with older kids centered on the facts:
- Explain the risks and consequences, including that marijuana impairs memory and concentration, it can hurt problem solving skills and academic performance, reduces response time and persistent use is linked with a decline in IQ scores.
- Remind them that their brain is still growing and developing through their mid-20s, which means introducing a substance that affects their brain can have especially negative short- and long-term effects.
- Explain that marijuana is a depressant and it affects the mood. If they’ve heard it can be used to destress or manage mental health, explain that the opposite actually holds true: it exacerbates stress, emotions, loss of pleasure, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts or ideations.
- Discuss the dangers of using marijuana and driving.
- Research marijuana together, and explain how special interest groups on either side of the issue can be biased and not reliable sources for information. Look to .gov sites for the most credible information.
- Impart that the marijuana available today is “not your mom’s marijuana;” because the plant is grown differently, it’s three times more potent than THC was 25 years ago. Because of widespread mislabeling of marijuana products found by the FDA, the potency can vary from what is listed on the label and products could potentially contain contaminants.
- If you feel comfortable, share your own experiences with marijuana and how it impacted or impaired you, remembering to keep in context the changed nature of the drug today.
- Debunk some of the common myths, including:
- Marijuana is harmless: in fact, it impairs the still-growing brain and changes brain cells that control body coordination, memory, pleasure and judgment.
- Marijuana isn’t addictive: in fact, 3 out of 10 individuals who use it have marijuana use disorder and 1 out of 6 become addicted when use begins before age 18.
- Marijuana is safer than tobacco: in fact, marijuana deposits 4 times more tar in the lungs and contains 50 to 70 percent more cancer-causing substances than tobacco. Because it can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, use can also lead to increased risk of stroke, heart disease and other vascular diseases.
- Practice healthy self-care and coping strategies as a family and encourage your teen to find ones that work best for them, instead of marijuana, including dancing, connecting with friends, playing a sport or video game, reading, exercising, creating art, cooking, etc.
*Statistics from the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control
Keeping All Kids Safe
In addition to talking with kids about marijuana, parents and family members should ensure proper storage of marijuana in the home. And it’s OK to ask parents or caregivers in other households where your child will be spending time if they have marijuana in the home and how it’s stored.
- Keep all marijuana products in child-resistant packaging.
- Store products away from kids, preferably in a lock box in a location kids cannot see or reach.
- Don’t use marijuana products in front of children as they could be inadvertently left out or not stored away properly, and seeing products that look desirable may increase their interest.
- If a child ingests marijuana, call Oklahoma Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained pharmacists and nurses are available to assist with an emergency. Or, if a child has an especially negative response, like becoming very lethargic, having difficulty breathing or increased heart rate, call 911 or take them to the hospital. Because marijuana products may have very high amounts of THC, the symptoms can be more severe in a small child.
- If a child or teenager ingests or uses marijuana and has a mood-based response, like becoming depressed, anxious, angry or suicidal, call or text 988 to be connected to a behavioral health professionals who can deescalate the crisis situation and even dispatch a youth mobile crisis team if deemed necessary.
- If a youth needs a treatment assessment to determine their marijuana usage, risk level and what kinds of services they could benefit from, call 988 to receive a referral and appointment, or speak with your child’s physician.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a 10-month series of articles and podcasts with ODMHSAS. Find the full series at metrofamilymagazine.com/mental-health.
The 988 Mental Health Lifeline is designated as a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The 988 Mental Health Lifeline operates 24/7 and offers services for mental health crisis calls. Operators are licensed and certified health crisis specialists who answer calls and connect to and dispatch local services and mobile crisis teams. For more information, visit 988Oklahoma.com.