Blog Post

How do I Thoughtfully Answer My High School Students' Questions about Marijuana?

Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, PhD, MSW

Dear Doctors,

I am a high school health teacher in Ohio and my students have been asking a lot of questions about marijuana. I do not think that the traditional D.A.R.E. program is effective, but I am at a loss as to the best way to have this conversation with 15 and 16 year-olds besides “Just Say No.” Can you help?


Health Educator

Dear Health Educator,

Thank you for your question. I suspect there are high school educators all over the country in your situation.

Programs like D.A.R.E. rely on scare tactics more than accurate information to prevent teen drug use. However, research shows that these types of strategies do not reduce drug use and may leave teens ill equipped to make informed decisions about drugs when confronted with them in real life.

On the other hand, programs that take a reality-based approach to teen drug use and focus on accurate information and decision making skills can be successful in preventing teen drug use and helping teens recognize hazardous drug use for themselves and their peers.

Also, reducing the stigma around discussing drug use can encourage teens to be open with those they trust about their use, which is important in identifying use that might be hazardous.

I suggest Safety First, which is a booklet that discusses reality based approaches to drug education and is a useful tool for educators and parents. You can download free copies of Safety First, which has been recently updated to delve further into the marijuana issue.

As for what teens should be told about marijuana use, many teens assume that most of their peers use marijuana, but this is not true. According to the Monitoring the Future study, only 7 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana regularly, and less than 20 percent had used at all in the past year.

Teens should understand that most of their peers do not use marijuana, and the decision to not use, or to delay their use is to be with the majority. Also, there is a wide range of marijuana use, from experimentation to regular use.

Even if a teen tries marijuana, they do not need to try it again. If a teen finds that they are wanting to use marijuana regularly, there is a chance that they are self-medicating for an underlying physical, mental health or social issue.

Because daily marijuana use in adolescence is rare, it is more often a symptom of an underlying problem than the problem itself. Parents and educators should not look at regular marijuana use in adolescence as normative unless they are under the care of a doctor.

Which brings me to my next point, teens may feel that marijuana is safe because it is a medicine. While marijuana is safer than many medicines, teens should understand that, like other medicines, marijuana is only appropriate for the person for which is it prescribed.

Just as teens should not touch the other prescription medicines in their homes, they should not access medical marijuana unless they are the patient.

We have a great opportunity here as marijuana policy reform progresses, to have open and honest conversations with young people about marijuana use. The mantra of “Just Say No” has been replaced with “Just Say Know.”

Educators, parents and others who care about the well-being of young people should take this opportunity to develop a well-informed generation of young people.


The Doctors

Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

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