This class would be way more fun if we were all high.” That’s how one of the moms in Amy Goldstein’s* mommy-and-me music class broke the ice. “I barely knew this woman,” says the Toronto mom of a nine-month-old girl. Yet she wasn’t shocked by the pot talk. A self-described “super stoner” in her younger years, Goldstein still uses marijuana occasionally after her baby is sound asleep. “Most of our good friends smoke, and quite a few of them have kids,” she says. “It’s definitely a normal activity among parents.”
Marijuana culture has long been the territory of munchie-seeking stoner-dude stereotypes like Cheech and Chong or Seth Rogen. But increasingly, pot users are looking more like Goldstein — professional, family-oriented moms who like to get high every now and then. “I’m a high-strung, anxious person, and like most new moms. I can worry about whether I’m making the right choices for my kid,” she says. “Marijuana helps me relax at the end of the day.”
If you’re scandalized by that admission, consider this: Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye if a friend confessed to downing a glass of Chardonnay (or two) while the kids were around. It’s common to see posts about #wineoclock and “wine mom” memes on fellow parents’ social media feeds. Is using marijuana really so different? Not according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, in 2013, famously said that using cannabis is “no worse” than smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Now that his government is well on its way to legalizing and regulating the drug (legalization is being promised by no later than Canada Day 2018), a lot of Canadians seem to agree — 3.4 million of us use marijuana, according to Statistics Canada, and a 2015 Forum Research poll suggests that almost six in 10 Canadians approve of the Liberals’ plans to legalize it. Some of our neighbours to the south are already enjoying legal highs; Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C., have all legalized recreational use (though laws on how much you can have and where you can buy it differ by state).
It’s undeniable that attitudes toward cannabis are changing, particularly among overworked parents in search of a way to unwind. “There’s an increased comfort with the topic,” says Nathaniel Morris, a cannabis lobbyist and an independent researcher based in Kingston, Ont. “Because of the War on Drugs [movement], it’s been so demonized that just the idea of including ‘children’ and ‘cannabis’ in the same sentence was scandalous for so long. However, a natural by-product of legalization is normalization.” But just how normal is it for moms and dads to get stoned, and can you be a good parent when you’re high? As we inch ever closer to being able to pick up a gram or two at the store after grocery shopping, just as we do with wine or beer, here’s a look at the ways Canadian parents use cannabis and whether the stigma really is fading.
Pot: It’s no big deal
Toronto parents Ken Arnold and Aisha Smith-Monroe* don’t think twice about firing up their vaporizer (a device that heats marijuana so the active chemicals turn into vapour) after their two-year-old son has gone to bed. They are friends with other parents who do the same, and while they don’t broadcast their cannabis use to strangers at the playground, they view it as completely normal. “Considering the times we live in and how common [cannabis use] is among people our age, I can’t imagine a scenario where someone would be judgmental about it,” says Arnold.
Arnold and Smith-Monroe were pot users before their son was born, and they see no reason to stop now. Smith-Monroe even made the decision to use cannabis while she was pregnant. “I did a bit of research on the effect of weed on the baby, and my sense was weed affects people differently and it really wasn’t a cause for concern,” she says. A rising number of moms-to-be seem to agree. According to a recent U.S. survey published on the Journal of the American Medical Association Network, almost four percent of pregnant women polled between 2007 and 2012 reported using marijuana in the previous month, compared with just over two percent in 2002. (Scientific evidence on the effects of pot use in pregnancy is still limited, but some research links it with developmental and behavioural issues for kids later in life. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada cautions that using marijuana while breastfeeding is connected to slower development of motor skills.)
Tania Cyalume, co-owner of Queens of Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary in Toronto, says the number of people adopting a similar laissez-faire attitude toward the drug is growing. “I’ve seen a big shift in attitude over the past year,” she says. “People are starting to come out of the closet about using marijuana.” Among her clientele, which is mostly over 40, Cyalume says “a heck of a lot of parents” come to her store for everything from DIY joint-rolling workshops to topicals (oils and creams infused with cannabis) and edibles (cookies, brownies and other foods that contain cannabis) to good old-fashioned bud (the dried buds of the marijuana plant).
Pot rules for parents
As much as some moms and dads may enjoy indulging in cannabis, they have their own sets of rules around using it, often to ensure safety and discretion.
Many, like Arnold and Smith-Monroe, restrict their pot use to after their kids have gone to sleep (though Arnold says they occasionally have to deal with late-night wake-ups while high). Goldstein pointedly insists that she and her husband would never drive while under the influence. “We’re a 10-minute ride from the hospital, so in an emergency we know we can take a cab or an Uber,” she says. Vaporizers are big with parents because the cannabis is heated to the point where you’re inhaling vapours, not the potentially carcinogenic smoke you’d get from a joint. Edibles are also popular, as they allow you to completely avoid the worry that you smell like a dirty frat house. Smoking concentrated cannabis extract (a.k.a., dabs) is another common way for parents to get high. The user heats up the cannabis extract, which comes in the form of a wax, sticky oil or glass-like substance called “shatter,” and inhales the smoke from a “dab rig” — essentially, a vaporizer. “It’s a much more functional approach to cannabis because you can precisely control your dose, you don’t have a house full of smoke and it doesn’t smell strong,” says Morris.
Despite more accepting attitudes toward marijuana, the majority of the parents quoted in this article opted to use pseudonyms to protect themselves and their kids. That’s understandable when you consider that most of us grew up in a world where marijuana was taboo. We covertly rolled joints in smoke-filled basements at a time when Bill Clinton famously insisted he’d never inhaled. Even when marijuana is legalized, it’s hard to imagine the stigma will disappear entirely. “Though I’m comfortable with our parenting decisions, I don’t want to deal with the stress of any potential vilification from people who will inevitably disagree with us,” Arnold explains.
Signe Knutson, a divorced Winnipeg mom who uses pot every day for recreation and to relieve lupus-related pain, worries her ex might use her smoking against her. “I always feel a little bit of a threat that if he wanted to, he could bring it up in court that I’m a regular drug user and not fit for parenting,” says the mom of an adult daughter and three boys, ages three, seven and 12.
Her anxiety is justified. While it’s unlikely that police will bust down your door for using a small, personal amount of cannabis, possession is still illegal in Canada under the letter of the law (see “Primer on legalization,” below). And using it recreationally can cause serious legal issues when it comes to your kids, especially if you’re going through a divorce and negotiating custody.” “If you’ve been caught [using marijuana], it will adversely affect your character in court,” says Sabina Haqqani, a family lawyer in Toronto. “It could call into question your ability to parent.” However, the mere fact that someone uses marijuana isn’t the only deciding factor in a legal decision — the extent of a parent’s use, how it affects their parenting and the kids’ exposure to drugs are all considered. And using it recreationally can cause serious legal issues when it comes to your kids, especially if you’re going through a divorce and negotiating custody. Child protective services takes a similar approach. “We’ve gotten a range of calls about parents using marijuana,” says Lisa Tomlinson, director of intake for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. “If somebody is using all day long and unable to get up, not getting kids to school—that’s different than if someone uses recreationally.” The latter, she says, “is not something we’re going to get involved with.”
Can a stoned parent be a good parent?
Many parents who use pot invoke Trudeau’s comparison with having a glass of wine with dinner. “There’s a culture of ‘mommy needs wine time,’ but people think it’s really shocking [for a parent] to use cannabis,” says Goldstein. Many moms and dads would readily cop to sipping rosé or drinking beer while eating dinner with their toddler. It arguably has no discernable affect on their ability to parent, but it feels great — like stealing a moment of adult time while being pelted by macaroni. But is using cannabis really as innocuous? That depends on who you are and the amount you consume. Frequent users can develop a tolerance to the mind-altering affects and learn to control their doses, while casual users have the potential for getting much higher. Whether using marijuana to relieve pain or as a way to chill out, most adults would acknowledge that taking any amount distorts their perception. And despite softening attitudes toward the drug, there are still those who argue that it should continue to be illegal. Some would even go so far as to call marijuana out as a serious risk to parents and kids. “You can’t responsibly use marijuana because studies show it’s a drug that’s not safe for human consumption,” says Pamela McColl, a member of Parents Opposed to Pot and the founder of the Canadian anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada. She cites research that suggests marijuana smoke is carcinogenic, as well as studies that link the drug to reproductive issues. “People are saying, ‘I’m going to have a joint instead of a glass of wine,’ but what they don’t understand is the potency of this drug and the way it’s being grown has become ever more dangerous.” The claim may seem extreme, but McColl says her concern is that while most people understand how they’ll react to a glass or two of wine, some pot users aren’t aware of just how high they can get. What’s more, there aren’t currently checks and balances in place for users to truly know what’s in their weed.
Despite knowing these risks, Arnold and Smith-Monroe say they understand how they react to marijuana, and they prefer it to alcohol precisely because it doesn’t affect their ability to respond to their son’s needs the way drinking might. They’ve both stopped drinking almost entirely because the risk of overindulging is too high, and parenting a toddler while hung over is too big a price to pay for a night out. “It’s far easier to lose control after having a few pints compared to having a couple of puffs of a vaporizer and feeling completely capable,” says Smith-Monroe.
Knutson says marijuana actually helps her handle the chaos of parenting. Though she admits the drug can sometimes make her feel tired, she says being high helps her be methodical and calm when her sons are wreaking havoc. “When they get into a scrap and they’re getting hurt, I’m able to stay on an even keel when I’m high and see the argument from all sides,” she says. While she mostly lights up outside on the balcony, her kids have seen her smoking and rolling joints. “I used to call it my medicine, but as they got older, they knew it was marijuana,” she says.
Mother’s little helper
Some parents say using cannabis helps take the edge off the often-stressful job of raising kids. Take Maggie Jones*, whose eight-year-old son Charlie is on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum. “Marijuana absolutely makes me a better parent,” says the Toronto mom. “When I get stressed out, I tend to feel tense and cry, and my son picks up on that. But when I can step out and take a hit off my vaporizer, it’s like a knot untying in my chest.”
Beyond the benefits of stress relief, many parents say hanging out with kids while high is just more fun. These moms and dads aren’t getting completely blitzed around their children, just a little bit buzzed. “There’s a silly factor to cannabis. The act of just being goofy with your kid — rolling around, singing songs — cannabis just dives you into that head space,” says Morris, who is also dad to six-month-old Edison. “Young children act high. They have that silly, goofy, quick to smile, contagious laughing. Cannabis gets you there.”
Knutson recalls a specific time when a few tokes with a friend led to a fun-filled afternoon. “When we came back in from smoking, my three-year-old son was playing on the guitar. We ended up having a full jam with one little boy on drums, one on guitar and me and my friend on guitar and piano,” she says. “I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened without the marijuana, but everybody was so relaxed and not worried about whether we sounded good.”
What about the kids?
Tammy Marsh*, a mom to a four-year-old girl, a two-year-old boy and a one-month-old boy, started using cannabis to cope with the symptoms caused by chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Now cancer-free, she plans to start smoking recreationally again once her youngest is a little older. (She is not breastfeeding; she had a double mastectomy.) “I enjoy it,” she says. “I’ve yet to see research that tells me [using it] is dangerous. You’re going to hurt your body more by eating a box of doughnuts.”
It’s still early days for research on marijuana’s potential risks and benefits to the user (see “Marijuana and your health,” below), but is simply having it around dangerous for your kids? Parents need to be careful to keep their marijuana out of sight and out of reach, the same way they lock up medications and liquor. “The problem with making marijuana legal is that it doesn’t stay in the hands of adults,” says Sheryl Ryan, professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. She cites research that suggests cases of kids showing up in the ER after ingesting marijuana have increased in Colorado since the state legalized the drug. Foods commonly infused with pot include cookies, brownies and candies, which are tempting for little ones. And while research on the effects of second-hand marijuana smoke is still in its infancy, one study published in Pediatric Research notes toddlers in Colorado who were hospitalized with bronchitis were found to have marijuana metabolized in their urine. “It took us a while to realize the role of passive cigarette smoke,” says Ryan. “Marijuana legalized for recreational use is a relatively new thing.”
Monkey see, monkey do?
Another concern for Ryan is that kids are likely very aware of the fact that their parents use cannabis. “It’s not inherently irresponsible, but a large part of that lies in how, when and why you use it, and how you act,” she says. “You have the ability to make decisions for yourself, but it’s important to consider the influence on your child,” she cautions. She recommends having open, age-appropriate discussions with kids about why you’re using it and what effects it might have, both good and bad. Even if you think you’re keeping your pot use a secret, your kids might know more than you imagine. For Knutson, it was important to start the conversation with her eldest son, who is 12, so he’d understand why she chose to use marijuana to manage her pain. “We’ve talked about legal and illegal drugs, and how they can help people and hurt people,” she says. She’s even talked about how different strains have higher or lower amounts of various active ingredients and how they affect the brain and body differently.
That’s exactly what Goldstein plans to do as her daughter grows up. “I will probably explain there are a lot of things grown-ups can do that kids can’t, and one of them is drinking alcohol, and that’s something adults do to relax, and another one is using cannabis,” she says. “I want to be open with my child about it because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong.”
Primer on legalization
As of publication, the only legal way to use marijuana in Canada is with a doctor’s prescription and license from Health Canada. Only 34 producers are licensed to sell it. Since taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals have been working toward fulfilling their campaign promise to legalize and regulate all marijuana use in this country. Trudeau recently announced that legalization will happen on or before July 1, 2018, but while we wait for the stuff we smoked under the high-school bleachers to become perfectly above board, Canadians exist in a bit of a haze when it comes to cannabis (pun intended). Still-illegal storefront dispensaries are popping up in major cities, and mainstream companies like Shoppers Drug Mart and London Drugs are reportedly jockeying for a share of what’s predicted to be a very lucrative market — economists estimate it’ll be worth some $5 billion in annual tax revenue alone. Today, however, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is still a crime punishable by six months in jail.
Marijuana and your health
Cannabis has been painted as a kind of health product, associated with Earth-mama hippies and holistic wellness. In Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana is legal, spas and health retreats tout the healing properties of cannabis-infused lotions and oils. The research is still spotty, however. A new large study released by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes that marijuana is effective in treating chronic pain and nausea, and multiple sclerosis–related spasms. Cannabis advocates argue the evidence is clear, while many experts say that because the drug is still largely illegal, there haven’t been enough extensive studies to prove the benefits. But is it bad for you? “For those who use cannabis the same way people will drink one glass of wine x times per week, the health impact may be not so bad compared to regular or heavy use,” says Bernard Le Foll, medical head of the Addiction Medicine Service at CAMH. A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports suggests alcohol is about 114 times more deadly than marijuana. But, Le Foll adds, the risk factor skyrockets for pregnant women and people predisposed to addiction or mental illness. “An addiction risk has been very clearly demonstrated,” he says. Marijuana has also been shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure, and adversely affect learning and memory. A recent study from the American College of Cardiology found marijuana use raises risk of stroke and heart failure.
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published in April 2017 and updated in August 2017.