10/02/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

A Conversation With My Nephew About Pot

"Hey Bailey, let's talk about pot."

To my relief, getting the conversation started was as easy as that. Fearing getting off on the wrong foot, I'd rehearsed half a dozen opening lines during the 3,000 mile flight from Seattle to Boston.

My wife and I were once again celebrating Thanksgiving with our east coast family. This year, however, I was also on a mission; my sister-in-law had asked if I'd spend some time with her son, now 14 years old, who had recently been experimenting with pot. Bailey's dad, my brother, had died six years earlier, and she felt that this "talk" would go best coming from a sort of surrogate father figure.

I had imagined the pitfalls of a bad beginning, not the least of which was my nephew's immediately feeling cornered by my raising the topic. I had pictured him rolling his eyes at being subjected to one of those "I'm right, you're wrong" one-way talks that quickly go south.

There was quicksand of another sort I needed to give a wide berth. Because I'd been a marijuana researcher for decades, first studying pot use by GIs while an Army social work officer in Vietnam, Bailey's mom hoped that I'd have credibility in her son's eyes as an "expert." While those credentials might have given me some standing in a courtroom, I was fairly certain they'd carry no weight whatsoever with a young teen. Bailey needed an uncle, not a professor, for this conversation.

There were heavy-duty storm warnings my nephew must heed. For one, he was growing up in a family in which a number of us had struggled with one addiction or another: severe and debilitating emphysema from cigarette smoking in one relative, death by opiate overdose in another, and dependence on alcohol and/or pills in more than one relative. I myself had quit getting high in my mid-30s after my own pot use had become compulsive.

Whether he had a genetic predisposition to addiction was uncertain, but clearly he'd seen excessive alcohol and other drug use first-hand in his family; at his age, would what he'd witnessed be perceived as modeling a desirable path? Did he have the maturity to have any awareness of the flip side of the coin, the pain and remorse experienced by those same individuals and those who loved him?

Rapids lay ahead. Teens who begin pot use early in adolescence and then get high regularly tend to pay a heavy price. In the short-term, they risk becoming derailed from healthy psychological and social development -- suffering poorer performance in school, dropping out of the types of activities (sports, music, hobbies, etc.) that contribute to a sense of self-confidence and the ability to achieve mastery. In the longer-term, heavy use during adolescence is believed to alter normal brain development, even lowering IQ points later in adulthood.

Would these hypotheticals have any effect on Bailey's thinking? To have such an impact, it seemed to me, he'd need to give at least as much weight to what might (or might not) happen in his future as he gave to the pleasant experiences I suspected he was having as he experimented smoking pot with his friends right now. I wondered. How capable is a 14-year-old of investing in longer-term goals by consciously making decisions to deny himself fun that might ultimately keep him from achieving those goals?

My work at the University of Washington had a direct bearing on what was happening with my nephew. With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, my colleagues and I were testing an innovative approach to promoting just that kind of "how is my pot use affecting my goals" thinking in teens who were frequently getting high. Called the "Teen Marijuana Check-Up," the intervention was being offered in six local high schools, and 252 teens were enrolled as participants.

Publicity for the check-up emphasized that students could participate in confidence. It also made it clear that the check-up wasn't drug counseling, but rather an opportunity for them to take stock of their marijuana experiences and think through their options. There would be no pressure to commit to change, and the sessions would take place during the school day. Then, any who wanted to change were offered help.

We'd found that many pot-smoking teens in those six high schools were interested enough to volunteer. The health educator each teen privately met with took the time to elicit what he or she most liked about pot. Active listening skills were important in conveying empathy, building trust, and then in eliciting the teen's candor in talking about the concerns he or she had about any negative effects noted because of their pot use. Participant feedback was very positive, particularly to the fact that they hadn't been hammered with a host of dire warnings.

The check-up seemed to work because it gave teens the chance to hear themselves talking about the difficulties in their lives to which pot use was contributing. In essence, they themselves were making the case for change... quite a contrast to a directive from an authority figure.

When the Thanksgiving dinner dishes were being cleared, I asked Bailey if he had time for a chat, and we walked into another room. He seemed open and receptive to my well-practiced opening line, and soon he was telling me what he enjoyed about getting high. I listened, asked open-ended questions, wanting him to know I was listening.

He shared his view that getting high was no big deal, that his friends thought that way as well, and that there was lots of propaganda about marijuana. I stuck with him, holding back the impulse to interrupt with, "No, it really is a big deal and let me tell you why." Eventually, when I believed he was ready, I asked if he'd be interested in some of my thoughts, and he was.

There were no commitments made that day, but two people stayed in a room and listened to one another. It was a beginning.

The following booklet may be useful to parents: "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Underage Marijuana Use"