.North Bay Teens Talk About Cannabis During Quarantine

So, you’re worried your seemingly innocent teenager is a secret cannabis consumer? With good reason.

Cannabis is the “drug” most widely used by American teens. It’s also a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. I’ve put the word drug in quotation marks because it isn’t a pharmaceutical that anyone can purchase over the counter at Rite Aid or Walgreens.

Still, cannabis is more potent now than ever before, with higher percentages of THC, the psychoactive ingredient. It’s also more readily available now than at any time in the past. As author Marin Lee points out in his book Smoke Signals, “Marijuana is a controlled substance whose use proliferates everywhere in an uncontrolled manner.”

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While teens can’t buy weed at dispensaries, they can persuade adults to make purchases for them. In California, Prop. 64 legalized cannabis for adults 21 and over, not for teens, many of whom likely resent being excluded by law. Whether they’re 13 or 19, they’re not waiting until they’re 21 to use it.

But are teens smoking more than they were prior to legalization? According to the National Organization for the Normalization of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “Studies suggest that marijuana legalization has not had much overall effect on marijuana use by children and adolescents, at least during the past two decades.” The NORML website says that “rates of problematic cannabis use by young people have declined for the better part of the past two decades.”

Moreover, legalizing marijuana has reduced crime, not increased it, in part because it takes marijuana out of the hands of outlaws and criminals. When Sebastopol’s first dispensary, Peace in Medicine, opened, Chief of Police Jeff Weaver fielded phone calls from cops all over California asking if crime had gone up. “No,” he would say. “Even littering has declined.”

One can find studies that purport to show the dangers of cannabis for teens, but many of them are funded by the federal government, which considers marijuana a drug as dangerous as heroin. Teens know that isn’t true. They also know the U.S. government has lied about cannabis for decades. Advocates for normalization rightly point out that the White House lost its credibility on the subject of drugs long ago.

For the past 42 years, I’ve written about California marijuana. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people of all ages, races and social classes: growers, doctors, sheriffs, traffickers and more. This article is based on decades of experience in and around the cannabis community, from Sebastopol and Sonoma to Willits and Ukiah, plus a deep dive into the world of North Bay teens, their parents, teachers and friends. Teens are at the heart of this story.

No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, though teens told me they’ve had bad experiences. A Bay Area mother of two teens says, “The last time I used, when I was in college, I was hallucinating and having major anxiety, so I stopped smoking.” More often than not teens make sound decisions on their own.

The mother of two teens adds, “I would, in a heartbeat, use it for medical conditions for me or anyone in my family, purchased from a safe place. It is way better and safer than alcohol.” That is the prevailing point of view among North Bay parents.

I’m reminded of the time former Mendocino County Sheriff, Tom Allman, told me in his Ukiah office that cars could not logically be outlawed because automobile accidents have resulted in tens of millions of deaths. “Also,” he said, “the police can’t arrest everyone for speeding on 101, but that doesn’t mean that no one should be arrested, nor does it mean that the state should abolish all highway rules and regulations.”

Teens point out the hypocrisies surrounding drugs. “Alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis, and it’s legal,” one 15-year-old tells me. “That’s hypocrisy.”

Black market marijuana money infuses many California towns; kids get Christmas presents, school supplies and video games thanks to cannabis cash. Business owners look the other way. State and local governments accept tax dollars from the cannabiz, even while they consistently fail to provide accurate information about cannabis. Educating the public about cannabis is the responsibility of the private sector, government officials tell me. For the most part, teens educate themselves. They conduct research online and also experiment on their own bodies and minds and compare notes with peers. That is the case with Martin Bolz, who might be described as a dedicated user.

Teen Tales

Bolz began consuming marijuana at 16. Three years later, he’s still smoking, though he says he won’t smoke forever. His “marijuana habit,” as he calls it, won’t help him get into the U.S. Air Force. He wants the Air Force to pay for grad school.

When asked to describe his relationship to weed, Bolz says, “It’s complicated.”

Many, if not most, Norcal teens say much the same thing. They deplore weed and they praise it, insist they’d like to stop, but go on using it. Are they addicted? It depends on how one defines addiction. With “vaporizing” and dab pens, or e-cigarettes, kids are more likely to be hooked than if they smoke a joint. That’s a choice they make, but the manufacturers of dab pens make it easy for teens to become psychologically, if not physiologically, addicted.

Recently, the SSU police caught Bolz smoking weed and told him to get off campus. On another occasion, he smoked in front of a cop. “I wanted to see how he might react,” Bolz tells me. “He did nothing.” Cops don’t want the hassle of arresting teenagers, especially if they’re white, for violating marijuana laws.

When Bolz’s parents caught him using it, he moved out of their house and went on smoking in his own Rohnert Park apartment. “I started as a secret smoker,” he tells me. “But everyone knew.” I suppose he looks like a stoner, though that’s a stereotype that increasingly doesn’t apply.

Bolz isn’t afraid of an addiction to marijuana, nor are most of his contemporaries, the post-Millennials, who belong to the latest in a long line of demographic groups in the U.S. targeted by the drug warriors.

The Drug War

Marijuana, opioids, heroin, cocaine, acid and speed are readily available on Main Street, U.S.A. The pandemic has persuaded Americans, including teens, to use more uppers and downers, pills, salves, tinctures and edibles—and play more addictive video games—than they ever did before, out of boredom, loneliness and isolation. 

“The kids are not alright” has become  a popular media meme. Ever since the birth of “youth culture” after World War II, teens have been rebels with and without causes. Drugs have played a part in their rebellion.

“It’s impossible to separate people from drugs,” 16-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman (not her real name) tells me. “You can’t stop people from having sex, either. The drug war was lost long ago.”

A half-century after President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs”—which was a war on people—the drug warriors have lost three generations of Americans to marijuana. Those same drug warriors have bolstered the prison-industrial complex, arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of Black and Latino boys and men, and thereby helping to perpetuate Jim Crow.

Sixteen-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman turned her back on weed. Photo: Jonah Raskin

If scare tactics don’t persuade today’s post-Millennials to stay away from weed, the drug warriors might as well give up the ghost and do something useful, like provide accurate information about drugs.

Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather has recommended marijuana ever since he lived on “The Farm,” an intentional community in Tennessee, in the 1970s. Before then, he smoked when he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Hergenrather has worked with thousands of patients, old and young, parents and children, and with all kinds of ailments and infirmities.

”Cannabis helps young people get through their teen years, which can be stressful,” he tells me. “It helps them focus, alleviates depression and anxiety and eases insomnia.” Hergenrather adds, “It’s unreasonable to expect that teens won’t use cannabis. It’s their drug of choice, and, while new users sometimes get spacy and abuse weed, they usually come to terms with it.” Hergenrather suggests that teens ought to use marijuana in safe environments, that they respect the wishes of their parents and that their parents let them use it at home.

His January 2020 scientific paper showed that high dose consumption of cannabis helped relieve the symptoms of ADHD in adults. He and his fellow researchers concluded that “more studies are needed.” If only other researchers didn’t rush to unwarranted conclusions.

More Teen Tales

Eastman gets her weed from her father, a longtime cannabis farmer and dealer. “Parents who are okay with their kids smoking are rare,” she tells me. “When parents forbid it, kids do it more often.” She adds, “I think it’s cool if parents allow, but not cool if they encourage.” Her father insists that she only smoke his weed, which she gets for free and which he also sells to some of her friends, if they’re over the age of 16.

Eastman is often uncomfortable with her own use. “Sometimes weed makes me anxious and sad,” she tells me. “When I’m high I forget things and don’t pay attention. Also, sometimes when I smoke with friends I think they’re excluding me. We talk about it. Turns out, they have the same thoughts I have.”

Eastman would rather smoke with friends than smoke alone, but that has been difficult during the pandemic. She can be as negative about cannabis as any drug warrior, though she has no scientific evidence to offer, merely personal experience. “Smoking is bad for you,” she tells me. “It kills brain cells and interferes with learning, though I have some friends who say it opens their creativity.”

The pandemic curtailed much of Eastman’s social life, which revolves around skateboarding, where drugs are part of the scene. Some kids smoke and skate, others only skate, while still others only smoke. Adults are rarely present. There’s sex in the bushes and a teenage male macho culture.

Sixteen-year-old Debbie (not her real name), a high school sophomore, smoked for the first time at 13. “It was in a car with a friend,” she says. “I felt natural, organic and fun. I went home, watched a movie and went to sleep.” Debbie grew up in a family of marijuana smokers and growers. Her parents told her, “don’t talk about it at school.”

These days she mostly uses on weekends. “There’s a lot of misinformation about cannabis,” she tells me. “Some people think it’s as bad as heroin. I think weed should be legalized.” When she looks around, she sees the growth of the cannabis subculture: more cultivating, selling and using. Indeed, it’s a growth industry that offers employment, benefits and decent wages. “Scaring people won’t work,” Debbie says. “The kids who smoke the most are the ones whose parents tell them not to smoke.”

Education and Miseducation

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services offers a social media campaign meant to educate teens about the dangers of marijuana. The website, www.cannabisdecoded.org, features a photo of a 16-year-old girl who is quoted as saying “When I was getting high I thought I was having a good time. But what I started to realize is I was actually missing out on a lot.”

I didn’t smoke pot until I was 25, when a law student who became a New York State Supreme Court Judge got me high. I giggled, ate ice cream and experienced spatial alteration, though two hours later I was back to normal. More than 50 years later, I still get high. When I told my older brother—a psychiatrist who prescribed pharmaceuticals for his patients—that I wrote six books under the influence of weed, he said, “You would have written 12 books if you hadn’t smoked at all.”

Like Sonoma, Marin has a program to educate teens about weed. The Marin Prevention Network explains that the county has “a long history of widespread marijuana use and cultivation,” and that marijuana use among teens has “become commonplace” with “widespread acceptance.”

Not long ago, I attended Dr. Jennifer Golick’s lectures to students, parents and educators. “The weed that hippies smoked wasn’t dangerous,” she told an audience at Redwood High School. “Now it is. Marijuana causes mental illness.”

There does not seem to be a substantial body of evidence to support that allegation, as Dr. Hergenrather and others in the medical field will attest. In fact, the weed hippies smoked in the ’60s was often more dangerous than the weed that is used today. In hippie times, it was often grown in Mexico with toxic chemicals. It was usually months, if not years, old and had mold and mites.

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services collaborates with Panaptic, an organization with a website that says, “marijuana prevention is more urgent now than ever before.” On its website Panaptic says: “Imagine growing up in a state where there are twice as many retail marijuana stores and dispensaries as Starbucks and McDonalds.”

Panaptic’s co-founder, Sarah Ferraro Cunningham, 43, lives in Petaluma and has a Psy.D. in psychology. She’s old enough to remember the ad that went viral that showed a man who fried an egg in a hot skillet and said, “This is your brain on drugs.” A member of the new generation of psychologists, she doesn’t demonize. “If you tell students ‘Just Say No,’ they will clam up and you won’t connect to them,” she tells me.

Cunningham tells me that she smoked marijuana in college, that her grades dropped and that when she “cut down dramatically” her grades went up. Panaptic—the name means “view from above”—offers consultations, online courses and workshops, all of them focused on marijuana, with teens, parents, families, teachers and schools.

“We emphasize neuroscience,” Cunningham says. “We can’t honestly say that marijuana causes anxiety, but we can say that it’s more likely to cause it with those who do use marijuana.” Local therapists say there’s more anxiety now than ever before and that it’s not caused by cannabis, but by the pandemic, fears of global warming and economic hardship.

Some studies conclude that cannabis damages teen brains, though none of them offer conclusive proof of harm to the prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates thoughts, actions and goals. None of the teens I interviewed showed a lack of core cognitive skills. I observed them navigating the internet. They made omelets over hot stoves and didn’t burn themselves or wreck skillets. They read books, wrote book reports for school and received top grades. They understood the questions I posed and had no difficulty conversing with me, recalling events from years ago as well as from the previous day.

I ask Cunningham what success in her line of work would look like. “It would mean getting teen wheels turning,” she says. She adds, “I’m reluctant to say success would also mean teens not using marijuana.” Indeed, that would doom Panaptic to failure.

Who Will Stop the Reign?   

Thirteen-year old Jack Black Jr. (not his real name) smokes once a week. His father rolls his joints. Last year, he grew his first commercial crop, though he has been helping his father cultivate since he was eight. Not long ago, he witnessed armed police officers storm his house, arrest his father, handcuff him and take him away in a squad car. That’s drug education! Arrests won’t stop Jack Black Jr. from planting seeds and harvesting weed, and they won’t stop the reign of drugs, either.

Indeed, the war against drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves. That has been the position taken by former police officers who founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization that recently morphed into Law Enforcement Action Partnership, that wants to end the war on drugs.

“Growing weed is hard work,” Jack Black Jr. tells me. “You have to give the plants lots of sun, water and compost tea.” What does he see in his future? “I want to grow up and be a marijuana farmer and also have a real job, maybe at a fast-food place,” he says.

Colin, a 19-year-old, longtime cannabis user, has been in therapy for eight years. “I’m introverted,” he tells me. “Therapy has helped with insecurities.” When a peer pressured him to do drugs, he exclaimed, “Fuck off.” He adds, “I’m glad I gave up dab pens. They were ruining my life.”

If you’re concerned about a son or daughter smoking weed then sit down, listen and try not to be judgmental. You could learn something, even if you smoked dope in the ’60s. After all, it’s a brave new cannabis world out there. “Just Say No” has never worked. It doesn’t work now. Too often teens are demonized by adults. The ills of society ought not to be tied to teens. They didn’t create the society into which they were born. They inherited it.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.”

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