New York Times: A ‘Just Say No’ Dad’s Struggle in the Land of ‘Just Say Yes’
By Neal Thompson
(This originally appeared June 15, 2018 in the New York Times)
My older son was in eighth grade when he got home from a day of skateboarding, glassy-eyed and dopey, and fell asleep on the couch. For two hours. My wife and I sniffed around him as he snored, and barked at the same time: “Pot?!”
It was the end of our family’s innocence and the start of a yearslong battle against substances.
Our job as parents got even harder when the law turned against us. In 2012, with our boys on the verge of high school in Seattle, the state of Washington approved Initiative 502, which would begin to phase in legalized marijuana. It was as if the electorate had conspired to legalize arson, or dropped the drinking age to 14. My wife and I felt betrayed.
We had been telling our kids: Pot is bad for your developing brain! Wait until you’re older! But at the ballot box, our friends and neighbors seemed to be telling our kids: What’s the big deal?
How were we supposed to raise drug-free boys in a drug-happy city? How was I to enforce “just say no” in one of the kush-friendliest states in the nation?
We’d lost a vital tool, as did parents in Colorado and D.C., followed by six more states, and potentially more to come. In the years since, each time I read about another state tilting toward legalization, I’d think, Oh, you poor parents … Do you know what’s coming?
Legalization triggered a cat-and-mouse game in our house. We’d find glass bowls in sock drawers, rolling papers in jeans pockets, shredder devices and Phillies Blunts packages in backpacks, a bong behind the furnace. Incriminating evidence practically fell into my lap.
“But pot is legal,” the boys would say in response to any attempt at pot-shaming them.
“Not for you it’s not,” I’d shriek, reminding them that, like booze, pot was still illegal for people under age 21.
They’d roll their eyes. Whatever, Dad.
Seattle had long been a land of “just say yes.” Legalization created an even deeper sense of tolerance. It seemed too easy for my kids to get weed — easier than booze, and easier to hide.
I drafted a “Rules of the House” list, the first of which was: “No drugs or drug paraphernalia in the house.” They both hated the “D” word. In their view, pot was a plant, not a drug.
The other rules were an attempt to set benchmarks for grades, attendance, curfews, chores and jobs. But they all tied back to rule No. 1. I made them sign the document.
I love my boys. Love their passion for skateboarding, their clutch of goofy friends, their independence and street smarts and their persistent search for fun.
And as a smoker in high school, I wasn’t totally naïve. I knew some version of this was coming, as did my wife. I just didn’t expect that I’d be dealing with my state government endorsing — if not encouraging — my kids’ stoner-skater-slacker lifestyle.
Decriminalization turned my house rules into a house joke. Stalking my sons on Twitter and Instagram, I’d find arty photos of fat blunts and baggies of bud. If I found anything — rolling papers, bowls, baggies, bongs — I’d toss it into a neighbor’s garbage can. They’d accuse me of violating their privacy, of “stealing my stuff.” I’d ground them and confiscate their skateboards.
By 2015, with legalization in full bloom, Seattle had become a stoner mecca. Pot tourists lined up out the door at shops like Uncle Ike’s and descended on the annual Hemp Fest. A family friend got into a pot finance group; a journalist friend started reporting for the cannabis industry. We met growers, sellers, financiers. Betrayal, betrayal, betrayal.
At home, I’d show my kids clipped-out articles on pot’s effect on teen brains, its addictive qualities, on employer drug tests, on the benefits of waiting until your 20s.
“It’s only POT,” they’d insist, with more eye rolls. “It helps me relax,” they’d say.
I sought advice from parenting books, including “How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid,” which encouraged us to talk to them, set rules, establish rituals, be involved in their lives. But … we did all of that.
My older son later tucked a Sharpie-written note inside that book: “SERIOUSLY?!”
Nothing my wife and I said or did, from punishment to lecture, seemed to make enough of a dent. Not until we began experimenting with containment, in place of zero tolerance.
If you have to smoke, I’d tell them, just keep it out of the house, or wait for the weekend, or at least until after you’ve finished homework. Sometimes they complied, sometimes not. But for us to survive as a family, some form of acceptance had to be part of the solution.
Some nights we’d have to decide how to handle two giggly, watery-eyed teenagers at the dinner table. My wife’s approach was to stay positive: How was school? Did you have a nice day? What’s for homework? I’d sit there sipping a beer, and stewing.
In time, we reluctantly inched toward a more hands-off approach. We threatened rehab or wilderness camp or kicking them out if things veered too far. We grounded them when they skipped class, praised them when they brought home A’s.
We bent our own rules, and let Jeff Spicoli into our home. Prohibition wasn’t the answer.
It wasn’t always pretty. We talked to them. We yelled. We kept the pressure on. We never gave up or gave in. We compromised. We enforced. We punished. We wept.
Our tactics changed daily. We swung from despondent to hopeful and back.
We persevered. We kept our kids close.
And now? With our boys out of high school, out into the world of college and jobs, I can look back and say that, for us, trying to ban pot from our home was a failed policy.
Our story is neither a victory for cannabis nor a defeat for drug-free parenting. Other parents may roll their eyes at this, but I view it simply as our family’s means of survival.
On a recent trip to see my youngest at college, in a Pacific Northwest town in Canada — where medical marijuana and beer are legal at age 18, and where fully legalized pot is coming soon — we found ourselves in front of an “artisanal” pot shop.
“Well?” I said to my 19-year-old. “Shall we?”
I filled out a form, listing my medical condition as arthritis (true), and a tattooed young woman sold me a gram of sweet-smelling bud called Purple White Lightning and a bottle of 20:1 Sleepytime tincture. My son bought a tan-papered pre-rolled blunt of a joint.
We later shared beers at a rooftop bar, and I looked over at my (suddenly) A-student college kid, and silently toasted away those wasted years of conflict and chaos.
Neal Thompson is a journalist and the author, most recently, of “Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood.