DENVER — Michael Jolton was a young father with a 5-year-old son when Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000. Now he's got three boys, the oldest near adulthood, and finds himself repeatedly explaining green-leafed marijuana ads and "free joint" promotions endemic in his suburban hometown.
"I did not talk to my oldest son about marijuana when he was 8 years old. We got to talk about fun stuff. Now with my youngest who's 8, we have to talk about this," said Jolton, a consultant from Lakewood.
A marijuana opponent with a just-say-no philosophy, Jolton, 48, is among legions of American parents finding the "drug talk" increasingly problematic as more states allow medical marijuana or decriminalize its use. Colorado and Washington state have measures on their Nov. 6 ballot that would go a further step and legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults.
Parent-child conversations about pot "have become extraordinarily complicated," said Stephen Pasierb, president of the Partnership at Drugfree.org, which provides resources for parents concerned about youth drug use.
Legalization and medical use of marijuana have "created a perception among kids that this is no big deal," Pasierb said. "You need a calm, rational conversation, not yelling and screaming, and you need the discipline to listen to your child."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, says the family conversations "are becoming a lot more real" because most of today's parents likely tried marijuana themselves.
"Parents know a lot more about what they're talking about, and kids probably suspect that their parents did this when they were younger and didn't get in trouble with drugs," Nadelmann said. "There's still hypocrisy, but the level of honesty and frankness in the parent-child dialogue about marijuana is increasing every year."
The Haskins family of Olympia, Wash., provides a vivid example of how the conversations have evolved.
Sarena Haskins, 41, and her sister are both longtime users of pot for health reasons, and Sarena's 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, has become an advocate of medical marijuana to the point of posting a video online expressing her views.
Yet Sarena Haskins opposes the ballot measure that would legalize recreational use of pot in Washington and advises Hannah to avoid experimentation with the drug.
"I'm a little a little nervous about those conversations, but I'm having them now," Haskins said. "I tell Hannah it's not a smart choice, that she needs to focus on school ... You can't just be a pot head and be lazy."
Another longtime parent/pot user is Tim Beck, a Detroit insurance broker who succeeded in getting a marijuana legalization measure on the city's ballot for Nov. 6. The measure wouldn't supersede the state law against non-medical marijuana use, but would let adults possess small amounts of pot on private property without facing arrest under city ordinances.
Beck says his 17-year-old daughter, Maria, who is now studying at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, observed his pot smoking throughout her youth.
"I decided I wouldn't hide it ... no big deal, no lectures. It's something she grew up with," said Beck, 60. "I don't know whether she's tried marijuana or not, and I don't care. If we detect any evidence of dysfunctional behavior, which we never have, then we'd focus on that."
The legalization campaign grates on Yolanda Harden, 47, officer manager at a Detroit middle school who has raised five kids of her own and a dozen others from her circle of friends and family.
Harden said her own parents battled drug problems that started with marijuana use, and she tries to convey to the youths in her care they could risk the same fate.
But she finds it harder now to get that message through. "Because it's so popular, they truly believe it's harmless."
Michigan, Colorado and Washington are among 17 states where medical marijuana is legal. More than a dozen states, and many municipalities, have scrapped criminal penalties for small-scale pot possession or made it a low-priority crime for police.
In Colorado, hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries and growers operate legally, and ads invite new patients to try their pot.
In Boulder, Colo., home to nation's largest college pro-marijuana protest each spring, city councilwoman KC Becker doesn't oppose Boulder's thriving marijuana business but realizes that, within her family, she'll have to approach the topic differently than her parents did.
"My parents definitely didn't talk to me about drugs, ever," Becker said. Marijuana legalization, she said, "does force you to talk about it and explain it — but that's not necessarily bad."