Advice for addressing marijuana use in college students | Dear YFS

Dear YFS is an advice column with reader submitted or posed questions from the Island.

  • Sunday, August 4, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Dear YFS,

Both our sons are in college and use marijuana. We are glad they are honest about it, but we struggle with knowing when to set parental guidelines (no smoking pot) and allow the boys to take their own paths, albeit with some strong recommendations about safety and reducing harm.


Dear LD,

After Initiative 502 legalized the use of cannabis for adults over 21, Youth and Family Services staff have received many questions about pot/weed/marijuana from teens, parents and seniors alike. Yet, five years into the “experiment” of legal cannabis and there is still much that is unknown.

However, when it comes to parenting around addictive substances, YFS counselors and prevention experts do have some suggestions.

Before I explain, we should get a few things out of the way. First, the active psychoactive ingredient in cannabis (THC) is potentially addictive and early, heavy use can have significant health consequences. Second, there is some data on the health benefits of certain components of cannabis, such as cannabidiol (CBD), only for a very narrow and specific range of medical conditions. Third, heavy cannabis use in college correlates with academic underperformance and increased frequency of dropping-out. Lastly, it remains illegal federally and in most states.

The background information here hints at one important tip for parents talking with their teens and young adults about cannabis. That is, to first arm yourself with the facts. A good place to start is the website where there is science-based information for parents.

Island parents are a sophisticated bunch, and I want to commend you on differentiating two distinct parenting roles in your question: keeping kids safe and letting them learn from their mistakes. YFS staff talk about this in terms of prevention vs. harm reduction.

When kids are still living at home, there is good evidence to support the benefits of a zero tolerance policy for cannabis use coupled with no adult modelling of the behavior. This seems to have the strongest effect on a youth’s decision to abstain. In fact, delaying the onset of cannabis use, or other addictive substance for that matter, (until 21 or older) has a strong correlation with decreased lifetime substance use problems.

Older teens and young adults are not out of the woods. Human brains do not fully develop until the mid 20’s. Substance use, especially heavy use, can have a dramatic impact on the myelination of nerves as they try to weave together a pre-frontal cortex that is good at decision making, planning and personality expression.

You allude to the potential benefits of allowing kids to learn from their mistakes. I agree that failure is a gift that can build resilience. However, I suggest that cannabis use poses a risk to your son’s academics, social-emotional development and health that might not be worth it. Consider maintaining a “zero tolerance” message on the home front as they are still young enough to listen.

Your late adolescent/young adult sons are also at the developmental stage where they can think through goals, make many of their own decisions and have a better sense of self. As your parenting role adapts and shifts toward more mentoring and coaching, you can appeal to these sensibilities and help them weigh the pros and cons of cannabis use. Might recreational marijuana use wait until their brains are finished forming and the risk to academic success is not so great?

Kudos for continuing to parent even after your sons have left home. Keep the health messages strong, support your sons’ learning when they make poor decisions and help them come to the decision themselves that at least putting off cannabis use might be a very good idea.

Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email

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