Like the parent of any toddler and kindergartner, Jared wants to keep certain things out of reach.
Liquor is stored out of sight in a cupboard. The household cleaners are safely kept behind childproof locks. And the marijuana is stashed high on a shelf in a fireproof lockbox.
Evenings fall into a familiar routine. Family dinner. Baths. Then, after their daughters are snuggled in for the night, Jared slips out onto the back deck of their District apartment and smokes a now-legal bowl of marijuana.
“It relaxes me. And it helps me get perspective to see the big picture. I find that enjoyable,” said Jared, a rare parent in the District who was willing to talk openly about his marijuana use. He asked that his full name not be used because he is concerned about the impact on his children.
Jared said he and other pot-smoking parents he knows have one ironclad rule: They don’t smoke in front of their kids. Yet what will happen once the kids figure out Dad’s on the balcony getting high?
More than half the country supports legalizing marijuana, according to polls. But it’s this question — What about the kids? — that provokes unease, even outrage, and keeps many pot- using parents uncertain about how to navigate the “new normal” of legalized marijuana.
The stakes are high for both parents and kids. Even where the drug is legal, parental pot-smoking can be considered as a factor in child-neglect cases, just like alcohol. As a result, some parents have been accused of endangering their children and had them taken away by child protective service agencies.
There are fears that if parents reveal their use, teens will be more likely to give it a try, a phenomenon supported by research. And although the science is fairly new, some studies have found heavy marijuana use in adolescence can permanently disrupt key networks in the developing brain associated with memory and processing information.
“For parents, this is a confusing time. If they’re users, how are they going to talk to their kids?” said Matthew Kuehlhorn, founder of Community Thrive, a new organization in Colorado that helps facilitate such talks in an effort to prevent youth substance use. “This is a social culture change we haven’t seen the likes of since alcohol prohibition ended.”
Kathy Henderson, who leads a Parents Against Pot effort in her Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington, said she has noticed that legalization has led to a higher incidence of children “walking around the street openly smoking marijuana and thinking it’s okay.”
“It’s very, very disheartening,” she said. “Our children have so many challenges to begin with, this has really set us back. It’s crazy.”
Jared said he doesn’t want his daughters to use marijuana as minors, but he plans to be straight with them when they’re older.
“When they get to the age of 21, and can make a legal choice, they need to know, honestly, ‘What’s alcohol like? What’s it going to do to me? What are the risks? And what’s cannabis like?’ ”
In Jared’s mind, cannabis — advocates’ preferred term — is the substance of lesser harm. It’s less addictive, studies have found, causes fewer health problems and, unlike alcohol, no one has ever died using it.
And he likes the idea that regulating the marijuana trade should make marijuana harder for teens to acquire.
In time, he hopes smoking a joint will be as unremarkable for parents as cracking open a beer at the end of the day. But that’s not today.
Even Jared, who made the decision to “out” himself as a pot smoker because he works for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, is nervous. He hastens to say that he never smokes so much he couldn’t quickly respond to an emergency with the kids.
“There’s still so much stigma,” he said. “If I worked anyplace else, I wouldn’t be talking openly.”
Advocates for legalizing marijuana say there are more pot-smoking parents than most people think. The Pew Research Center reported that 47 percent of Americans — about 150 million people — have tried marijuana.
A group of mothers in Beverly Hills, Calif., made headlines as the “Marijuana Moms” not long ago when they came clean about using marijuana to deal with chronic pain. And the Global Drug Policy Observatory found that women between the ages of 30 and 50 were among the biggest supporters of legalization in Washington state and Colorado.
“Marijuana, of all the mind- altering substances, is probably the only one that helps you cope with being a parent,” said Adam Eidinger, a cannabis activist in the District, who said he smokes marijuana regularly for medical reasons. “It gives you patience.”
Like Jared, Eidinger keeps his stash in a safe locked away from his 11-year-old daughter, and he smokes on his condominum’s roof deck. But he’s been pushing the District to amend the new law, which permits the drug to be used inside one’s home, in order to allow pot smoking at special clubs, roof decks, beer gardens or bars. “I don’t know how that’s any better for children — having friends come over to my house and smoking weed around my kid,” he said.
Yvonne Maguire, a stay-at-home mother of young children, was terrified that her District neighbors would find out she smoked marijuana to deal with insomnia and migraines. But since she moved to Colorado, where the recreational use of marijuana has been legal since January 2014, she and her husband have joined groups that activists have put together for parents who smoke pot.
“It’s really nice,” she said. “It’s a way for parents to feel more comfortable.”
Brittany Driver, mother of a 3-year-old and regular medical marijuana user, dispenses advice in her Pot and Parenting column for the Denver Post .
She’s also helping to promote an app, called High There, that will help pot-smoking mothers find each other.
“Even in Colorado, there’s still such a stigma for parents, it’s still hard to talk about openly,” Driver said.
Because of that stigma, even when it’s legal, some pot-smoking parents worry that their use will be met with the disapproval of others, who might ostracize their children.
But what keeps many parents underground, they say, is their terror of someone calling Child Protective Services. A pot-smoking couple who ran a medical marijuana dispensary in Washington state, where medical and recreational marijuana use is legal, had their 5-year-old taken away and placed in CPS protective custody in November when he tested positive for THC, the psycho-active chemical in marijuana.
And in April, CPS took away the 11-year-old son of Shona Banda, who uses marijuana to manage Crohn’s disease and is an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana in Kansas, where legalization bills failed this year. After her son spoke out about medical marijuana in school, police investigated and found marijuana, drug paraphernalia and a lab for extracting cannabis oil in the kitchen, within easy reach of children. Banda faces the possibility of child endangerment and other charges.
Mindy Good, spokeswoman for Child and Family Services in the District, said officials have been having serious conversations about what marijuana’s new legal status in the District will mean.
“Whether a substance is legal or illegal is of less concern to us than whether or not it’s affecting someone’s ability to parent,” she said. “For instance, alcohol is totally legal. But if it’s impairing the ability to protect and care for your child, that’s when we step in.”
Sara Arnold co-founded the Family Law & Cannabis Alliance, a Massachusetts-based group that monitors and advocates for pot-smoking parents’ legal rights, in part because she herself, a medical marijuana user, has been investigated by CPS three times.
“We have actually had instances of medical marijuana patients in states where medical marijuana is legal facing termination of their parental rights,” Arnold said. “If a parent had a bottle of wine, no one would be coming to check that out.”
Though studies show that the majority of marijuana users tend to be lower-income and those with less than a high school education, Max Simon, with Green Flower Media, sees that changing. Green Flower is sponsoring a “Coming Out Green” campaign of reports and videos of personal stories to rehabilitate pot’s outlaw image.
“One of the fastest growing markets we’re seeing is the baby-boom generation,” who smoked pot in college then quit when they got jobs and now want to use it again, he said. And most of them are parents. The group is releasing a new report, “Be Askable,” with advice for setting family rules and a “just wait” message to help teens delay any substance use until their brains are developed.
Candace Junkin, co-founder of the International Women’s Cannabis Coalition, is a mother of four and grandmother of three who lives in St. Mary’s County, Md., where medical marijuana has been legal since 2014. (Virginia recently passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana for epilepsy, glaucoma and cancer.) She suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that causes excruciating shooting pains in her face. Her doctors initially prescribed painkillers, but they made her so disoriented her children called her “Mombie.” In 2002, she found marijuana eased the pain and began smoking or vaporizing up to six times a day.
At first, she was so ashamed that she hid her use from her children. “But over the years, the kids started to see that when Mommy would be hurting, she would go in her bedroom, and she would come out and she would be better,” Junkin said.
She decided to share the research she’d done on the health benefits of cannabis with them. None of her children, the youngest of whom is 17, smoke pot.
“One kid is about to go to college. Another is about to graduate. One owns her own business,” she said. “For a pothead mom, I think I’ve done okay.”