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Talk to your kids about marijuana the same way you’d talk to them about sex

Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, was part of the presentation on marijuana and young people.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts is part of a cultural shift that has some parents’ heads spinning. When the first retail stores open, and law-abiding adults can buy pot for recreational use, what’s the best way to keep teenagers from abusing it?

At a HUBweek panel on Thursday, a pair of Massachusetts General Hospital experts offered concerned parents a familiar model. Talk to your kids about marijuana in the same way you’d talk to them about sex: Teach them how to make safe decisions.

“You don’t say, ‘Well, don’t do it,’ and walk away. You talk about how to do it responsibly. You also don’t say, ‘Yeah, it’s a great idea. Go have sex with everybody,’ ” said Jodi Gilman, director of neuroscience at MGH’s Center for Addiction Medicine, said during a panel at Boston’s HUBweek ideas festival. “It’s the same with pot.”


That said, Gilman and Dr. Gene Beresin, who directs the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, emphasized that, ideally, young people should not use marijuana.

For starters, it’s still illegal for anyone under 21.

And the drug, like others, can have long-lasting implications for the development of the adolescent brain. Teenage decisions about whether to use marijuana, when, and how much, can have a lifelong effect.

That’s why, Beresin said, it is so important for adults to craft their messages in a way that will actually get through.

“You all know this: Prohibition does not work,” he told a crowd that included many curious parents. “Abstinence doesn’t work. ‘Thou shall not’ only makes it the forbidden fruit.”

HUBweek, the Boston ideas festival founded by the The Boston Globe, Harvard, MIT, and MGH, is oriented this year around conversations about the future; and the panel was one of a number of events focusing on how to raise healthy children.


As the state’s first marijuana shops begin operation, pot will become part of the local landscape for many Massachusetts families. Stores in Northampton and Leicester are set to open within a few weeks.

Gilman said there are three important factors that lead to bad outcomes for young marijuana users. First, people who partake more frequently see more pronounced effects.

Second, the potency of the drug can make a difference, she said. Many products now derived from marijuana are highly concentrated with THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive component, which means users put more of the substance in their systems.

Third, the age at which people begin using marijuana is crucial. Gilman said her research suggests that users who begin before age 16 are particularly vulnerable to enduring effects on learning.

The panelists said parents should start talking to their children when they are young about moderation and risky behaviors.

They should also be prepared to debunk several widely held myths about marijuana. Though it is not as addictive as nicotine, Gilman said, marijuana can lead to dependency in 9 to 10 percent of users, which is “still a really big number.”

And Beresin said he is concerned by research that says many teens think driving under the influence of marijuana is legal. It is not legal, and it is dangerous.

Beresin said parents should also be prepared to answer questions about their own use of marijuana. He said that in conversations with his own children, he underscored how much things have changed since his youth.


Marijuana is more potent now, he said, and more is now known about the risks of many behaviors.

He noted that when he was young, the laws around drinking and driving were less strict. Fewer people wore seat belts. And smoking tobacco was widely accepted — he said he used to be allowed to smoke in hospitals, though he quit in the 1980s.

“There were so many things that we did . . . and now we know better,” he said.

Andy Rosen can be reached at