Longtime East Bay drug and alcohol counselor Ralph Cantor recently presented some sobering facts about marijuana to a crowd of parents at Oakland's Claremont Middle School: The pot that young people in Northern California are smoking is the strongest in the world. Yes, the world, he reiterated. And parents, in general, either don't know much about the effects of cannabis or are too laissez-faire to do much about it.
"It's astounding the ignorance out there," said the 73-year-old Rockridge resident, who worked at Albany High School and for Alameda County in drug prevention programs for four decades. "Adults are acting a little deer-in-the-headlights."
So, Cantor's mission is to educate parents, and their kids, about what the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana can do to an adolescent's brain and to get young people to heed these words: Weed can wait.
"It's different for a teen to smoke marijuana than it is for an adult," Cantor said. "And it's not hypocritical for Dad to have a drink and say 'no' to the kid. You're the parent. You have to give a clear message: It's not OK for you to smoke weed now."
But figuring out how to get kids to stop ingesting cannabis is the million-dollar question, Cantor acknowledged, especially since recreational marijuana is now legal and so easy to get.
His best answer? Science.
Cantor's hourlong spiel (he could talk longer about the subject if given the chance) revolves around a Power Point presentation and rudimentary chalkboard drawings of a teen brain. The young mind is not yet formed and the prefrontal cortex is not yet developed. The brain finally solidifies for most people at age 25. So, if teens, or even tweens, start smoking pot before the age of 18, they run the risk of inhibiting the proper development of their brains, he explained (There's plenty of research to support Cantor's assertion).
What's also worrisome, Cantor said, is that young people are learning that in order to get a dopamine rush, the quickest and most fun way of doing it is by lighting up, rather than by skateboarding or acting or playing the flute, or other healthy activities that can also produce a "high" in a natural way.
"To a teen, getting high can be a great feeling," Cantor said. "But it's a trick. It's like magic is firing off dopamine in your brain. They're starting to create a 'party brain' where they need more and more to get high. And to trick your brain now robs the child of figuring out who they really are."
If teens get high on the psychoactive agent in cannabis—tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC,—too often, Cantor added, then they also might be damaging the memory part of their brain over the long-term. Since the drug stays in the bloodstream for many days, unlike alcohol that gets flushed out much more quickly, a person's memory doesn't have a chance to relax and rebound, he said.
Cantor is the first to admit that not every teen is going to listen to scientific explanations and cut cannabis out completely. Abstinence is certainly the ideal, he said, but far from the reality.
In fact, he acknowledges that with teens he knows, he's had to resort to pleas of harm reduction: At least don't ingest marijuana during the school week. "The culture to smoke weed is enormous," Cantor said. "And I've underestimated its power."
And just how to broach the topic, and the science, with each teen is different. As will be the results. Some youth really are just experimenting and could be considered "normies," (or normal), while others might have a genetic predisposition to addictive behavior, Cantor said.
"I really don't like talking points," he said. "What may work with one kid, may not work with another. The lines of communication and how to get your point across really comes from your gut, not your head."
Cantor suggested finding out what makes teens tick: Why they have the urge to smoke pot, how it makes them feel, and if it's the only thing that makes them happy. Do they smoke alone? Can they have fun without it? If the answers are less than desirable, Cantor said it might be time for parents to "go to war" and lay down the law.
For kids who can't stop smoking weed, and it's having a serious impact on their lives, he supports more drastic measures: drug testing with urine samples and severe consequences for bad results. If that doesn't work, then it's probably time for a rehabilitation center. (He suggested Kaiser Permanente's Chemical Dependency Recovery Program and Thunder Road, both in Oakland.)
Hopefully, the drug problem won't get out of control, Cantor said, and if parents jump in at the right time and find other passions that teens can engage in instead of cannabis, then so much the better.
"We've got to take on a coaching role," Cantor said, "while also setting boundaries."