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Marijuana's Mainstream Move Triggers Different Kinds Of Family Talks

Debbie Moak, of Phoenix, is against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. She worries about the potential for people to move from marijuana to harder drugs.
Stina Sieg/KJZZ
Debbie Moak, of Phoenix, is against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. She worries about the potential for people to move from marijuana to harder drugs.

If pot laws were colors, a map of the U.S. map would resemble a tie-dye T-shirt.

In some states, marijuana is illegal. In others, it's legal for medical purposes. And still in others, it is even legal for recreational use.

Recreational pot has been legal in Oregon now for a year, but it was a long time coming. Voters approved medicinal pot 20 years ago. Arizona is voting on it this fall – along with California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. It was only six years ago that Arizona approved marijuana for medicinal use.

The Arizona measure is making some voters nervous. A group that includes two county attorneys even sued, unsuccessfully, to get it off the ballot.

Then there's 59-year-old Debbie Moak, who lives outside of Phoenix. She put her son in drug rehab when he was 20.

"A lot of these kids who are going to be impacted the most by this, they won't be voting in this election," she says. "This is where we need to be the adult in the room and protect the kids."

Moak says pot led her kid to use harder drugs. Cocaine became his drug of choice. He dropped out of college and eventually becoming homeless.

"It tears a family apart," she says. "Addiction becomes a disease of the family, and I've lived it, in the trenches. And I don't want to see this happen for any other family."

But Moak used to see that pretty much daily, back when she ran a nonprofit called Not My Kid that worked to keep young people off drugs. For nearly two decades, she spoke to parents in pain because they were unable to reach their children who were sinking deeper into drug dependency.

She opposed the approval of medical marijuana because she feared it would lead to more acceptance of the substance she views as tremendously harmful.

Coming at this from a completely different direction is 60-year-old food editor Martha Holmberg. She lives in Portland, Ore., and says she smoked a lot of marijuana in high school and college then didn't touch pot again until she finished bringing up her daughter. Now it's more a fabric of her social life.

"I don't do it with people that I don't know well," she says. "But if I'm hanging out with girlfriends or we're going over to a friend's house, I will usually bring weed and say, 'Hey, anybody want to get high?' "

Some do and some don't. "And it all flows very comfortably in that situation," she says. "It's not like the pot smokers have to go off to the corner."

Holmberg recently hosted two women writing a pot cookbook. And they needed somewhere legal to try out recipes. The main issue: How much weed to include in each dish?

The equivalent for alcohol would be to figure out whether you make a Moscow Mule with a finger of vodka or a pint. Holmberg says they proved to be a little too cautious.

"At the end of the evening people weren't really very high," she says. "I think some people were disappointed. We actually pulled out a vape pen for anybody who wanted to get high. But it was much better that way. People felt reassured."

For some people in Arizona, the scene Holmberg described would be shocking. But the introduction of medical marijuana here in 2010 made it a lot more palatable for others. Like Lisa Olson, a mother of five who lives in Mesa, Ariz., outside of Phoenix. She uses pot to help ease the symptoms of her multiple sclerosis.

How does her marijuana use fit in with family life? "Basically, the way we ended up handling it was a lot like alcohol," she says. "So my kids certainly see me drinking a glass of wine with most dinners. They know that's not for them. That's for the adults."

She thinks adults should be able to use pot recreationally, too. For someone like Olson, who had always abstained from drugs, that's quite a change. Once she saw how much good marijuana did for her, she felt it shouldn't only be reserved for people with a few specific ailments.

She's passed this newfound openness onto her children. Jake Olson, 20, says the "just say no" message he got from school wasn't necessarily true. He appreciates hearing that there are times when use in moderation is OK and shouldn't be equated with heavier drugs.

"It's really funny because, you know, most teenagers don't figure out things like that through their parents," he says. "But I am that exception. I am that person who learned that maybe not all bad things are bad, from my parents."

Acceptance is growing in Oregon. But it's been a gradual process. Patrick Caldwell has a Portland business selling pot containers. He is 29 and brings cannabis-infused sodas to parties. He says he might share one at, say, a bachelor party but not at a family picnic. Caldwell doesn't want pot to be taken lightly.

"I want my nephews to be able to make their own informed decision about cannabis without being influenced by the fact that I so regularly use it," he says.

He thinks people need to respect what they're getting into. But he hopes that in a few years, bringing pot to a family picnic will be no different than bringing a six-pack.

This story is part of a reporting collaboration with NPR, local member stations and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Stina Sieg, KJZZ, Phoenix
Kristian Foden-Vencil, Oregon Public Broadcasting