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If Marijuana Is Legal, What Do We Tell Our Kids?

It was so much simpler when we were growing up.

Marijuana was illegal, so it must be bad for you. If you grew it, bought it or sold it—or even just smoked one toke—you were breaking the law.

On this front, at least, our parents had it easy.

Today, the picture is more muddled. In last November’s elections, voters in Colorado and the state of Washington approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in adults age 21 and older. Out where I live, in California, the drug is all-but-legalized thanks to a 1996 referendum that approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Sales from California dispensaries are roughly $1 billion annually, according the Board of Equalization, the state’s tax administrator. And these states are not alone—pot is now legal for medicinal or limited personal use in 18 states across the nation.

Of course, it’s still illegal under federal law. But, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” President Obama said in a December interview with ABC News.

Whatever happened to "Just say no"?

Wonderful news for adult potheads in Denver, for instance, but not so much for parents of teens, who now may feel they are left with more questions than answers. Should we now put pot in the same intoxication category as beer? And whatever happened to “Just say no”?

Well, to start with, pot may be legal in some places, at some times, but that does not mean it’s A-OK for your teenager. Consider this: One in 11 adult users will become addicted to marijuana, but for those who start in their teens, the ratio drops to one in 6. And the younger the user, the greater the risk.

“A 14-year-old smoking weed can be very different than a 16-year-old smoking weed,” says Douglas Rosen, director of youth and family outreach for Beit T’Shuvah, a nonprofit addiction treatment center in Los Angeles. “The likelihood of addiction increases dramatically the younger somebody is.”

And marijuana use among teens is on the rise, with 6.5 percent of high school seniors smoking pot daily, up from 5.1 percent five years ago, according to the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, under a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

More than one-fifth of the seniors had smoked pot in the month prior to the survey, and more than one-third had tried it sometime in the last year. By comparison, 17 percent of 10th graders and 6.5 percent of 8th graders reported use in the past month, and 28 percent of 10th graders and more than 11 percent of 8th graders reported use in the past year.

RELATED: 6 Ways to Stop Teen Drinking

Also worth noting—only 20.6 percent of seniors see occasional use as harmful (the lowest since 1983), and 44 percent see regular use as harmful (the lowest percentage since 1979).

And the increasing acceptance of marijuana legalization makes teens ever more casual about the drug, says Rosen.

“Kids believe that it’s not that dangerous because it’s legalized to some extent,” he says.

In fact, he says, the opposite is true. Today’s dispensaries sell pot with up to 24 percent tetrahydrocannibol, or THC, the ingredient most responsible for the drug’s psychological effects, Rosen says. That’s up to six times the potency of what it was 40 years ago.

“The legalization of pot has given manufacturers more opportunities to make it stronger and more potent,” Rosen says. “Kids don’t believe it’s more dangerous, and it is more dangerous because of the legalization.”

Increased levels of THC can make users more vulnerable to panic attacks, says Dr. Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at UCLA and a co-author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know. It also increases the risk of addiction, Rosen says.

The legalization of pot has given manufacturers more opportunities to make it stronger and more potent.

But marijuana addiction does not look as destructive as alcoholism or a heroin habit, and so the message that pot is harmful can be hard to convey to kids.

“It’s really easy to show pictures of meth addicts with their teeth falling out,” says Susan Weiss, NIDA’s associate director for scientific affairs. “With marijuana, the effects are more subtle. They’re not destroying their life, but they are compromising it.”

Weiss cited a 38-year NIH study showing that people who use cannabis heavily in their teens and continue through adulthood suffer an average 8-point drop in IQ.

“And even those who had stopped using recently did not see that much recovery,” she said. “There was permanent change” in their brains.

So talk to your teen, Weiss advises. Just like you tell her to eat well so she can keep her body healthy, “one of the things we want to drum into kids is to keep your brain healthy,” Weiss says.

Of course, some people can use pot for years and be fine, but others are more vulnerable, she says. And you won’t know which one you are until it's too late.

“This is not a harmless drug,” Weiss says.

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