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Marijuana’s last taboo: Parents who get stoned

Some parents say using cannabis helps them relax and connect with their kids. But it’s dicey to talk about.

(Keith Negley for The Washington Post)

When Suzy found out she was pregnant with her first child, she stopped smoking pot immediately. She had used cannabis recreationally, on weekends, since her early 20s, but didn’t want to do anything that might harm the baby.

After giving birth, Suzy fell into postpartum depression. She loved her baby, but she couldn’t figure out how to love herself. Relief was hard to come by; she was scared to take antidepressants while breastfeeding. She considered turning back to cannabis, but worried that doctors might detect it in her baby’s bloodstream and take the child away.

After her newborn’s six-week checkup, Suzy allowed herself to take a hit when she knew she wouldn’t be nursing for a while. She could feel her shoulders release tension they had been holding for over a month. It was as if she was coming back to life. “I’m not proud I did that,” says Suzy — who, like nearly every parent interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition that her full name not be used for fear of judgment or more formal consequences. “But I’m not sure I would have survived if I wouldn’t have done that.”

She now consumes cannabis most days, always out of sight of her children, who are now 1 and 3, and her fiance’s 8-year-old son. She believes it makes her a better, calmer parent. Her attitude as she helps them build the Lego tower, destroy it and then build it again is leisurely. Because you know what? Those dishes in the sink can wait. “I am so much more playful and able to just ignore everything else that I’m dealing with in my head,” she says.

And yet Suzy, now 28, still feels the need to hide her habit not only from her children but also from her peers. Only her closest friends and family know about it, she says. She especially worries that if word got out, it could jeopardize her fiance’s custody of his firstborn.

Parents getting high. It is, perhaps, the last taboo in the places where cannabis use has otherwise lost its stigma.

It’s been a decade since cannabis first became legal for recreational use in Colorado. It’s now legal for medical use in 38 states, including 19 where it’s also legal recreationally. Ladies at canasta tables now compare notes on their favorite cannabis tinctures. Baby boomers openly smoke pot with their adult children. Colleges offer courses on “green entrepreneurship.” A recent Gallup poll found that more Americans are now smoking marijuana than cigarettes. It’s a habit that can be divisive when it comes to parents, especially with the proliferation of edible cannabis products that might be mistaken for regular candy.

James Kahn works in the industry that has grown up as legalization widened. He writes articles and hosts lectures about cannabis, and he’s the go-to guy for any friend of a friend who’s trying to figure out exactly which cannabis product might be right for them.

Kahn is about as open as one could be about his personal relationship with pot, which he’s used since high school. His spouse, his family, his employer, his friends and anyone who cares to look up his writings online all know that he gets high. But when the 43-year-old father of two first meets a fellow parent, he still feels awkward discussing it. “When I’m talking about cannabis,” he says, “it feels like a confession instead of a conversation.” He worries a little that he could be perceived negatively, and that it could cost his children friendships with kids whose parents disapprove of his cannabis use.

Culturally, “the war on drugs was pretty damn effective,” says Kahn, a Gen Xer who came up in the era of “Just Say No.” “It’s impacting my own self-judgment — even now.”

He’s sitting in a private room at the back of Liberty Cannabis, a brightly lit, Instagram-ready Rockville dispensary run by Holistic Industries, where he serves as the head of corporate responsibility. “As a White male, I have privilege, and I think there is a lot of normalization that’s happening, but it’s not happening across the board. People are still quite judgmental.”

In recent years, Kahn, who is also a rabbi, has regularly been invited to talk about cannabis at synagogues and senior centers. He sees normalization of cannabis as part of his rabbinical mission. But Kahn says he’s not getting any invites to speak to parenting groups.

“The one group I think where it still feels most uncomfortable,” he says, “is parents.”

Parenting — have you heard? — is stressful. And though some parental vices have been widely sanctioned by lighthearted internet memes and jokey doormats (Boy Mom lives here, hope you brought wine) marijuana is not yet one of them.

Moms and dads do get stoned, though some say they still sneak around like rule-breaking teenagers to avoid the disapproval of neighbors and family members. A Columbia University analysis of U.S. government data on drug use found that in 2015, 7 percent of parents with children in the home used marijuana, up from 5 percent in 2002. That number is almost certainly higher today, as more states have continued to legalize cannabis. But even in states where it’s legal, cannabis use doesn’t necessarily feel as socially acceptable among parents as, say, drinking alcohol.

“I just went camping this weekend, and I watched people get drunk off their butts in front of their children,” says Suzy, who lives in the Midwest, “but me taking a couple of hits back at the cabin away from the kids is totally not okay? That’s crazy to me.”

Katie, 31, doesn’t consider cannabis a drug, instead seeing it as a plant with the ability to make her a more patient parent. Her older child just started pre-K at a Christian school, and as much as she wants to make friends with other parents who toke, she says, “obviously we’re not trying to be, like, waving the Bob Marley flag at school.” She’s been trying to draw out like-minded parents in slightly more subtle ways. “If I catch a whiff of somebody at the park who’s been smoking, I’ll be like, ‘Smells good!’ ” she says.

Before having their two children, Katie and her husband moved from Indiana to Colorado in 2014 expressly to be in a place where marijuana was legal, so that they didn’t have to regularly break the law. But the pull to be near family brought them back to Indiana this summer, and Katie misses Colorado’s culture of acceptance. She and her husband still get high, but now the whole endeavor feels clandestine.

“Instead of going to the store, now we have to call up ‘a buddy,’ or make a 45-minute trip into town,” she says. “It’s just a lot of time wasted on acquiring it, which is stupid.”

Another mom, a 35-year-old with two kids, says the stigma she feels as a woman of color makes it hard for her to be open about her cannabis use. She works as an emergency medical technician, and “If I take a Black person to the hospital, and they say they smoke marijuana, that’s all [the doctors] focus on,” she says. “They don’t hear all the symptoms.” She fears she would be viewed the same way if White people found out she consumes cannabis — no matter that she does so legally, out of eyeshot of her children, and that it calms her without the heaviness of Xanax or the hangovers of alcohol.

“If you’re a Black mom, it just makes you a bad parent,” she says, summarizing the views of others. “As a Black parent I must be substance abusing or I can’t take care of my child and smoke.”

At a federal level, marijuana is still classified as a controlled substance. Cannabis consumption can be used as grounds for eviction or termination of employment. It can spark investigations by child protective services or show up as a red flag in the medical chart of a pregnant woman who tests positive for cannabis — especially among non-White parents, advocates say.

“No matter what the statute may say, smoking marijuana while you’re a parent is not a right,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “It is a privilege reserved exclusively for the White, middle class — because of the same class bias and racism that pervades every other aspect of our society.”

Social media groups where cannabis-consuming parents can trade notes without fear of judgment are full of funny weed memes and short videos on topics such as “How to turn a pumpkin into a bowl.” But they also reveal the secret fears parents have about the risks that might come with keeping up their habits.

One recent poster asked if any fellow pot-using parents had lost custody of a newborn who tested positive for traces of marijuana after birth. Others asked about drug tests at workplaces and the impact of cannabis use on custody cases.

Sandra Guzman-Salvado, a divorce lawyer in Maryland, says that marijuana use among parents isn’t automatic grounds to lose custody these days, but it also doesn’t work in anyone’s favor. “I don’t see the courts making as much of a big deal anymore, but it’s definitely not helpful,” she says. “Your fitness as a parent also includes what your habits are: Are you healthy? Are you a good role model? It’s still not a positive thing.”

Legal or not, keeping mind-altering substances around the house can come with complications. A few weeks ago, Emily’s beloved 13-year-old dog began acting strangely. “She was swaying her head side to side, and her eyes were super glassy,” the mother of two teenagers recalls. “She was walking kind of funny, almost like she was doing the robot. I said to my husband, ‘I think she had a stroke.’ ”

The couple rushed to an emergency veterinary clinic with their younger child in tow. After asking some very specific questions, the vet ventured a diagnosis of what was ailing the dog: “I think she’s high.”

Emily flashed back to the previous night, when she had cleaned out her pipe on the back deck. The dog, she surmised, must have licked the ashes.

“They gave her some fluids,” she says, “and $250 later, we left.”

Obviously, the anecdotes are a lot less amusing when it’s kids rather than pets who get into a parent’s stash. And it’s happening with increasing frequency, says Sarah Combs, an emergency-room doctor at Children’s National Hospital, especially with cannabis edibles that look like average gummy bears or other candies. In August, an Upstate New York poison control center warned parents of a sixfold increase in calls about children consuming foods with cannabis.

“I don’t like to judge or be harsh or spread fear or guilt,” Combs says, “but the prevalence of gummies and spread of gummies needs to be curtailed.” She has treated several children who ate their parents’ edibles — often 3-to-5-year-olds who ate a whole pack, far more than an adult dose. In children the substance can cause fast or slow heart rates and low blood pressure — and, Combs says, “in worst-case scenarios, you can end up with seizures and potentially even coma.”

She wishes federal regulations would be applied to edibles so that they would be packaged in a way that’s less appealing and less accessible to children. But for now, she just warns parents to keep cannabis locked up and out of sight of kids, like any other controlled substance. Because when kids who’ve consumed cannabis wind up in her emergency room, Combs usually feels required to do something she never likes having to do: report the parents to child protective services.

A New Hampshire woman never imagined herself becoming a pot smoker. But it’s become a source of stress relief, she says — and also something deeper. At night, after the mom has smoked a little bit of marijuana and climbed into bed, her 8-year-old will sometimes climb in with her.

“This is when we’ll have our best hangouts,” she says. “He’ll come in and say, ‘Hey, do you want to do cuddles?’ And then, I don’t know, it’s just super easy. We laugh and tell jokes, and it’s hilarious, and I honestly feel like I’m connecting with him.”

The mom, who is 40, can’t wrap her head around how cannabis became so taboo in the first place. She spent much of her childhood in Russia, where all drug use was considered abhorrent. But after injuring her shoulder four years ago, a massage therapist suggested she try cannabis for pain management. It didn’t really cut the pain, but for the first time since having kids she started getting a good night’s sleep. “I really don’t know why people are so negative about the whole thing,” she says.

Suzy, the 28-year-old mother of two, still feels sad looking back on her first weeks as a mother, when she didn’t feel safe consuming cannabis. “I missed the first six weeks of my child’s life,” she says. Suzy is hoping that marijuana use among parents will become normalized, so that others in her position can talk openly with their doctors about whether it could be beneficial.

Until then, she’ll keep sneaking around. Because regardless of what others might think, she feels sure that her use of pot is a good thing for her and her kids.

“I think I’m my best mom self when I’m smoking,” she says. “I’m just calm. I can relax. We have a blast because I can just let go a little bit more and follow their rules.”

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