Marijuana is legal in Illinois, beginning today. So I went back to a column I wrote that first ran on Sept. 25, 1996. I caught a lot of flak for it. People accused me of encouraging drug use. Twenty-three years later, the advice, I think in retrospect, holds up pretty well. See what you think. 

When I was in college and for a few years after, I used marijuana. I mention this, first of all, to guarantee that I never try to run for public office, but also because I think we have to develop a more realistic approach to talking to our kids about drugs, and honesty is the place to start. 

The fact is, many parents in my generation dabbled in mind-altering drugs. The vast majority, I bet, survived that period without any lasting damage. At any rate, that’s my situation. I haven’t used marijuana in approximately 20 years [now 42 years] and if anyone offered me a joint, I would politely decline [still true]. 

Not because I think it’s evil or dangerous or illegal or a bad example. Mostly, I don’t do it because I don’t need the escape.

Escapism is the real issue, not the means of getting there. We all have our escapes from everyday reality, some riskier than others — movies, hang-gliding, alcohol, heroin, even sex. The quotidian can get oppressive, especially if we find ourselves stuck in unsatisfying situations, but the more we go AWOL from our lives, the bigger our problem. If our chosen method of escape also causes physical and psychological damage, so much the worse. 

Marijuana isn’t dangerous; at any rate it’s certainly not as damaging as alcohol, and we sanction that in moderation. Demonizing marijuana and including it in our war on drugs is, ultimately, a waste of our limited resources. Legalizing it would free up manpower and money for the effort to intercept truly damaging drugs like heroin.

But that’s another issue. Legal or not, marijuana will always be available, and our kids may be tempted to try it. If we tell them it’s evil, then they try it and find out it’s not, our credibility is shot. It’s really shot if they find out we tried it ourselves and now we’re exaggerating the risk. 

There are, however, reasons to counsel against using the drug. It isn’t like alcohol in the sense that the mental impairment gradually increases the more you do it. If you smoke a joint, it’s going to put you in an altered state of consciousness, and that doesn’t allow you to function in ordinary reality without making you look extremely foolish. Which is probably why they used to call it “dope.” 

Being “stoned” is more closely akin to a mystical state. Actually, what it does is intensify the state of mind you went in with. That means the experience can be intensely positive, but also intensely negative. I found it to be a case of diminishing returns until finally, it wasn’t enjoyable at all. 

After a certain point, it seems, you have to earn your ecstasy.

Smoking marijuana was not physically addictive, and only psychologically addictive in the sense that it provided a temptation to escape at a time when what I needed was to face my life more directly. And that temptation to escape is where we need to focus our anti-drug messages.

That’s the lesson we have to relearn in the many arenas of our increasingly complex lives. There are many temptations to escape from our jobs, our marriages, the overwhelming responsibilities of being a parent. Hiding behind the message, “Just say no,” just doesn’t cut it. Our kids do need to learn how to say no, but they also need to know why they’re saying it. 

Experimentation is inevitable. My father, a wiser man than I, impressed me when he took me aside for “the drug talk,” and didn’t order me to abstain. He said that, whatever I might try, the most important thing was moderation. Coming from a man who practices abstinence (no nicotine, no alcohol, no caffeine), that carried a lot of weight. 

Moderation is a code I have adopted, but it doesn’t work with addictive substances. That’s why we should worry more about nicotine than marijuana. The more reasonable and rational we are in our arguments, the more credible we become in our anti-drug crusade.

I still don’t have any interest in using recreational marijuana. But I’m glad it’s finally legal. Now that it’s more easily accessible, however, parents need to advise young adults when it comes to using it — and overusing it. Whatever prevents you from getting where you want to go in life is a problem. Excessive marijuana use, i.e. excessive escapism, will do that. It undermines us when we use it to escape our life instead of facing it head on. 

That part hasn’t changed. 

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