“BARRY” HAS BEEN SMOKING POT for oh, forever now, but only got a medical marijuana license two years ago, for relief from pain and inflammation related to an autoimmune condition. He says it helps his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, too; one hit of “the perfect strain,” he says, “and the focus comes together.” He grows his own, mostly as a hobby, keeping a plant tucked away in an odor-proof cabinet he built in his North Shore home office, an idea his wife OK’d on the condition that the kids never find out. “She worries it may be like Breaking Bad, like, ‘You’ve been making what?’ ” he says. “But that guy was doing, like, 32 pounds of meth. I’ve got this cute little plant.”
And yet, it’s not as if Barry (not his real name) disagrees. While he relies on marijuana for medical purposes and enjoys the occasional recreational hit, he’s not willing to cop to either scenario with his teenage sons. Yet, in Massachusetts, marijuana is now as legal as a glass of wine — which, by the way, he now and again has two or three of in their presence (“I don’t drive,” he says. “I have dinner and that’s it.”) Barry suspects the older boy knows he smokes, though he’s never asked. “He might see me take a quick hit while out doing yard work,” Barry says. Then, perhaps unconsciously hinting at his own stereotypes, he says, “But at the same time, he sees that I’m out doing yard work. I don’t just sit around and eat grapes and listen to heavy metal and talk about ethereal stuff.” He doesn’t want to lie to them or demonize pot — “used correctly,” he says, “I think it’s fine.” Still, he fears that “too much of the truth . . . can be really swaying.” He knows his older son well enough to say, “He’s going to like weed, 100 percent.” For now, though, when they talk about drugs and alcohol, Barry holds the line, like many parents he knows: Nothing until you’re 21, and a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on his own consumption. And like many parents he knows, Barry’s realistic, so he tells the kids if they do find themselves partaking, don’t smoke too much, don’t drive, “and if you get hold of something funky, call me.”
Barry also tells them the family history: He lost a brother to alcohol and drug addiction. “I talk a lot to them about maintaining control, and how my brother lost it,” says Barry. He believes in the gateway concept, even though he knows it’s not an absolute; not everyone who tries pot moves on to something harder or becomes addicted. At the same time, statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show people who use marijuana consume more legal and illegal drugs than those who do not. A separate poll found that current users are more likely to be parents than not.
Marijuana may be perfectly legal now, and yet Barry’s office cabinet is an apt metaphor for how open we are about pot with our friends, neighbors, and family, in particular our kids. Of the parents interviewed for this story, all in their 40s and 50s, only two were willing to use their actual names, with the others citing concern for their kids and for their privacy. (The first names we’ve put in quotes are not the parents’ real names.) Plenty of other drugs, however, might get a pass. Parents might not pop an edible in front of their kids, says Dennis Kunian, a spokesman for medical marijuana dispensary chain Patriot Care, but “if [Dad] had to have hip surgery, he probably would not hesitate in taking an Oxy.”
OF COURSE, THE REALITY is that marijuana is no longer in hiding, even if many of its users still are. The drug has been legal in some form in Massachusetts since 2012, when voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana; they legalized recreational adult use in 2016, though by a much slimmer margin. Proponents argued that doing so would end the black market, increase job opportunities, and create new tax revenues for the state and individual cities. While acknowledging marijuana wasn’t completely safe, they held that its dangers weren’t great enough to warrant outlawing it anymore (much like alcohol or prescription medications). Opponents — who included Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and pretty much every other elected official — talked of the dangers of drug use, the increased risk of impaired drivers, and the unappealing nature of pot shops on every small-town corner.
As of late May, there were more than 50,000 authorized medical marijuana patients statewide, and around 30 medical dispensaries. But there remains a clear difference between believing marijuana should be legal to use and thinking a neighborhood store sounds like a good idea. Or feeling free to tell friends, family, neighbors, or your kids you use pot — even though studies show the levels of perceived risk and disapproval of marijuana are small and getting smaller. A 2018 study in Oregon found adults widely view alcohol as more harmful than marijuana — 52.5 percent versus 7.5 percent.
Kareem Abdalla, a pharmacist and father of two, wishes his family were more accepting of marijuana. His siblings were OK with it when he got a medical card a few years back to help deal with longtime sleep issues. But his mother? “For her, marijuana gets lumped in with heroin, LSD, cocaine, ecstasy,” he says. His wife tolerates his usage but insisted he not tell me where he lives, because he grows a small amount at home, and she worries about what the neighbors would think. His nightly marijuana use helps him sleep better, eliminating his need for the Adderall he once used to stay awake during the day. And yet he’s wary of coming across as an advocate for pot, which he says is also true of other health care professionals he knows. “We can’t tell people we’re using it because patients will look at us differently,” he says. “It’s taboo, it’s totally taboo.”
Stigma varies by age. Only 35 percent of Americans ages 71 to 88 favor legalization, one report found in 2016, with support among boomers and Generation X hovering near 56 percent. While more than 70 percent of millennials approve of legalization (more than double the 34 percent that did in 2006), they also tend not to talk about their marijuana use, so their Gen X or boomer bosses won’t overhear them.
Perhaps, too, Massachusetts is not as progressive as it votes. It took nearly three years after legalization for the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary to open, in Salem. Boston, one of the most liberal cities in the nation, didn’t get its first dispensary until mid-2016, when Patriot Care opened near Downtown Crossing. “There was just a ton of anxiety,” says Daniel Delaney, a Boston-based policy consultant and lobbyist who advised Patriot Care. There were nervous questions about pot’s impact on tourism, on school field trips, on crime. “It required a lot of education, community meetings, talks with zoning officials, allaying fears, making promises,” Delaney says.
Naturally, this sort of cultural unwillingness seems contradictory to at least one reason voters approved legalization, which was to generate tax revenues from sales. Bob Mayerson, an executive with Patriot Care’s parent company, notes that it bought a building in Greenfield in 2014 but was unable to open a dispensary there until this April. Mayerson says addressing stigma is an ongoing challenge for the company, especially now that Patriot Care has applied for recreational licenses. Before it opened in Greenfield, the company sponsored a lunch for veterans, including a panel on living with post-traumatic stress disorder, at the Elks Club there, drawing 125 people. All but two had anxiety disorders, so Kunian, the Patriot Care employee leading the discussion, asked how many of them had tried medical marijuana. “One person raised his hand,” Kunian says. “But when I asked about how many are taking Valium, Xanax, Effexor, you know, 90 percent of them raised their hands.” He figures more than one guy in that crowd had tried pot — they just wouldn’t admit it. And if they hadn’t? Well, that’s owed to the stigma, too. Kunian, also a veteran, says medical marijuana helped him kick an addiction to the painkiller Percodan. “We’re helping people live a better life with the serious conditions they’re facing,” he says.
Recreational outlets may arrive more quickly. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, an agency created to oversee the new marijuana industry, began accepting applications for recreational dispensaries on April 1, and the first could open as early as July. Already, though, close to 200 of the state’s 351 municipalities have barred recreational marijuana operations. Others have worked to make opening a location — medical or otherwise — very difficult, establishing zoning laws that allow for dispensaries to be located in “entertainment districts” that end up existing on unbuildable land. In Newburyport, for example, where 55 percent of votes cast favored legalization, the City Council in June passed a moratorium on retail sales. In April, the Boston Zoning Commission approved a measure to allow pot shops to open in business districts — a victory for marijuana retailers — but they must be at least half a mile apart. Since state law also says such facilities must be located at least 500 feet from schools, it could be hard to open a marijuana store in Boston at all. (Liquor stores, also required by law to be at least 500 feet from schools, can apply for exceptions.)
Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us in a state that still bans happy hour. “Other people can go to CVS or Walmart to get their medication. Because of zoning laws, I have to basically go to a back alley of an industrial park for mine,” says Natick resident Robert Barish, who’s had a medical marijuana card since 2015. And that’s in a town where voters favored legalization by more than the state average. Barry, meanwhile, learned his lesson about keeping his pot habits closer to the vest some 10 years back, when he was invited to a poker game with a bunch of neighborhood dads. Everyone was drinking, and at one point, Barry says, “I bang out my one-hitter and do a big old hit. One guy goes, ‘Come on, Cheech.’ And then someone else said something negative. I was like, listen, you just drank half a bottle of Scotch and now you’re getting aggressive. You’re not going to see that from me.” Barry never pulled out his pot among uncertain company again, and he says he won’t even now that it’s legal. “The dads didn’t understand it, and I didn’t want them to think that, you know, I might be high when I’m driving the kids around someplace,” he says. “I think generations are going to have to pass away before the idea of the deadbeat stoner goes away, and who knows if it ever will.”
IF MEDICAL USERS of marijuana get anxious about their smoking habits, it’s little wonder that parents express confusion about how — or whether — to address marijuana use in their homes and with their kids now that there’s no reason to hide — no legal reason, anyway. “Paula,” a stay-at-home mom of two on the South Shore, smokes pot with her husband a few times a month. They’ll wait until the girls are asleep, then go out into the garage to light up — to keep the smoke out of the house but also because, what if the kids saw? She says she still has her “sploof,” put together from a paper towel roll and a dryer sheet, blowing into the roll so the smoke doesn’t smell. “We grew up in a culture of it being so secretive,” says Paula. “Even in my own garage I’m nervous someone will catch me. Smoking pot in the open now, even though it’s legal, would feel too weird to me.” She’s certainly not alone. The other day, she went running with three other moms and the subject came up; she decided to give honesty a try, since she knew one of them smoked regularly. “She totally would not admit it to this other woman,” she says. “And then I felt like, ‘Oh God, now I’m the stoner mom.’ Later, I’m like, ‘What the hell, man? Way to hang me out to dry.’ She just laughed.”
Some parents who use marijuana for medical purposes are warming to the idea of openness. “Lauren,” a mother of two on Martha’s Vineyard, says she’d never smoke pot in front of her girls, but she might use it in another form. Not that she’d tell them. “I wouldn’t say, ‘I’m taking this edible right now because my back is sore,’ ” she says, any more than she would when popping an Advil. She plans to grow marijuana in her garden this summer and says she will be upfront with the kids, who are 9 and 5, about what it is and what it’s used for. She says she would never advocate for pot or alcohol use, but when the kids get older and begin to experiment, she’d rather they smoke or consume pot than drink. Her logic, perhaps influenced by her own experience: Teens who drink often hop around from party to party; the stoner kids tend to stay put.
Evidence does suggest alcohol alone affects drivers more negatively than cannabis alone. A 2009 study of studies in the American Journal on Addictions noted that pot seems to make drivers more cautious, while alcohol has the opposite effect (combining the two is typically worse than either alone). Alcohol is consistently associated with fatal crashes at far higher levels than any other substance. That fact is tempered by last year’s Denver Post report that since Colorado legalized marijuana, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes there who tested positive for marijuana has more than doubled.
Medical professionals haven’t come to a consensus on pot and alcohol. Both are dangerous, says Dr. Claire McCarthy, a staff pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, but in different ways. “Alcohol use is deadlier, especially when mixed with driving,” she says. “But marijuana use can lead to long-term cognitive problems, something many teens don’t realize. Both can lead to addiction — and both impair judgment.” She and her patients talk about those risks, and also about abstinence. The biggest factor predicting whether her patients will use pot is whether their peers do. “I have not had a single teen talk about their parents’ marijuana use,” she says.
Her colleague at Children’s, Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the hospital’s Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, takes a harder line. She says she’s seen how parental usage influences kids, and there’s research to support that. A 2016 study in Preventive Medicine found that a father’s usage, for instance, increases the odds a child will use marijuana by 8 percent (that study found peer use is more influential, increasing the odds by 27 percent). Parents have to avoid giving conflicting messages, she says. “Even if a parent says, ‘Don’t use it until you’re 21’ ” — which is also what the law says — “or not at all, often kids in treatment say they saw it at home.”
Natick’s Barish has been smoking pot for the entirety of his 19-year-old son’s life. It wasn’t a topic of conversation until his son got older. “He came to understand it was my medicine,” says Barish. “He wouldn’t give it a second thought. [My wife and I] were open about it the way we were if we had wine or beer. And he doesn’t use it now. I think when parents are weird, that’s when kids get curious.”
For Mayerson, his children were out of the house by the time he got involved with Patriot Care. But he had made sure they “knew how my youth was spent,” which is to say he inhaled on multiple occasions. He says parents need to talk with their kids about pot. “You don’t avoid talking about sex, because you know it’s going to be happening. You’ve got to realize this may be happening as well,” he says. “So you talk to them about how they can be responsible if [using pot] is what they decide to do.” He acknowledges he might feel differently about his approach had one of his kids developed an abuse issue.
The gateway worry gnaws at “Edie,” even more than it did when her daughter “Chelsea” turned 17 and they started smoking marijuana together. Smoking together wasn’t part of the plan, but Edie didn’t want to hide it from her. “I was with my sister, and I think we were smoking a pipe,” says Edie, a Sudbury resident. “Chelsea comes up to us and says, ‘Do you guys think I don’t know what you’re doing?’ ” Edie’s sister had started smoking marijuana when she was 12, “because she got some from me,” says Edie, who was 17 at the time. “I think it stifled some of her thinking and inhibited some of her drive.” Edie insists she waited until Chelsea was of age to decide for herself.
Edie says she is politically conservative but acknowledges, “I was pretty progressive” about marijuana. She also let Chelsea and her friends drink at the house — they were going to do it anyway, she figured, and at least she’d know they were safe. She thinks a soft touch on drinking and drugs “opened a line of communication that many parents seem to lose during those years.” Chelsea would confide in Edie about other things. “I knew where they were and what they were doing, and there were no secrets,” says Edie. But when she found out Chelsea had tried cocaine in college, she wondered if it would have happened had they not smoked pot together. If Edie could do it over, she might go with a more pro-abstinence approach. “My biggest concern with marijuana is how very palatable it can be,” she says.
I FIRST TRIED POT at a party in high school, and I didn’t see the appeal. It made me feel dull, uninterested. I have rarely used pot since then, though I might take a hit off someone’s vape pen or share a gummy bear with a friend at a dinner party. Alcohol, for me, has always been far more dangerous. I preferred how it made me feel, and I found it harder to know when to stop. It was, for a time, my gateway to other drugs. Alcohol is, in fact, the substance a majority of drug users try first, and studies show drinking opens the gate to other substances for more people than does marijuana. The RAND Drug Policy Research Center in 2002 analyzed survey data for 58,000 young people, drug users and abstainers, and found no evidence to show that marijuana use leads to use of hard drugs.
Earlier this year the journal JAMA Internal Medicine published research showing opioid prescriptions decreased in states with legalized medical marijuana. That’s the argument Vineyard local Beau Henderson is making as he works to open a recreational dispensary on the island. “There are people doing heroin here all winter long,” he says. “It’s a huge problem. Having the ability to go and get some good marijuana, legally, will curb that. And then hopefully people will realize it’s not so bad.”
In my own home, I will have a glass of wine in front of my 13-year-old stepson, and if he asks what it tastes like, why I enjoy it, or how it makes me feel, I’ll tell him. My own parents, by contrast, never drank at all in front of me, aside from on holidays. I remember conversations about drinking not going much further than “don’t.” Of course, I did anyway. Was I more interested in it than my peers who’d grown up in the sort of families where Dad offered a sip of his beer to the kids, or the teenagers might get a glass of champagne on holidays? It’s hard to say. I drank a lot in my 20s, but so did everyone I hung out with. Nobody was irresponsible with alcohol in front of me when I was a kid, but no one ever talked to me about how to drink responsibly, either.
In a world where marijuana is now legal, it’s worth wondering if there’s an argument to be made for responsible modeling, at least in households where parents do, or would, use pot. “Charles,” father to a young teen in Andover, says that at a recent dinner party with friends, some guests brought along an odorless vape pen. “Without even being asked, everyone at the party who chose to partake went outside so that my kid wouldn’t see,” says Charles, who went outside, too. “Was that responsible? Simply etiquette? Or was it reinforcing the idea that using pot is something to feel shame about, something to hide?”
Scituate mom Annmarie Galvin formed ScituateFACTS in 2011 to reduce substance abuse among South Shore teens. She concedes total abstinence for kids is impractical, but says most of us, particularly parents, don’t understand pot’s potentially serious effects. Too many people “get their marijuana information from WeedMaps billboards,” she says, referring to an ongoing ad campaign by a dispensary review site. The research, she says, will show “the truth about marijuana is not all bad or good, that it’s somewhere in the middle.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Names of some people in this story were changed to protect their privacy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.