Melissa Etheridge wants to set the record straight.
Last month, the Grammy winner revealed in an interview that she has smoked marijuana with her adult children — daughter Bailey, 20, and son Beckett, 18 — and wife Linda Wallem, saying the shared experience brought their family “much closer.” The candid confession came during a sit-down with Yahoo for the news outlet’s new Weed and the American Family video project, during which Etheridge talked about her medical use of the drug since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.
As soon as the interview was released, the singer-songwriter faced backlash online, as people questioned her parenting style and called her an unfit mother.
Now, speaking exclusively to PEOPLE, Etheridge, 55, is ready to clarify her comments.
“I’ve been a celebrity here for almost 30 years, and I’ve done my best to speak truthfully about who I am and my human experience as I go through life, from my work to my family,” the rocker tells PEOPLE. “Sometimes I find that I can say something, thinking that the whole world will understand, and they kind of go in another direction. I think if I get a little more specific, it can help guide the conversation in general about cannabis.”
Below, Etheridge details her own cannabis use with her kids, discusses why she believes it’s been “demonized” — and opens up about how heartbroken she is over the backlash she received for smoking with her kids.
“My children are my priority,” says Etheridge, who is also mom to 10-year-old twin daughters Johnnie Rose and Miller Steven. “I love my children. They are four of the most amazing human beings on earth. I live a very blessed life. I would never want to harm any of them.”
Do you regret talking about smoking with your kids?
I have regrets. I certainly can’t take it back, but I can do my best to explain: It’s not as reckless and casual as you think. These are very tender moments that I have spent with my children, with my young adults — and they’re very special moments and not treated casually at all.
I probably should have thought twice about actually mentioning my children. I understand, always, in these social norm issues, when you bring children in, that’s where people go crazy. Like gays: “It’s all great — but what about the children?” And we’ve shown, I’ve shown, that I’m raising four children; I have raised two, and I’m still raising two. So it was my mistake to say, “Yes, I’ve smoked with my children.” Which makes it seem like I sit down and smoke with my little 10-year-olds, which I do not. I want to be empathic in saying I do not believe in casual cannabis use in children or teenagers — I am not advocating casual cannabis use at all. I do not think it is healthy for children under 18.
When I said I have smoked with my children, I have two adult children. My oldest daughter attends Columbia University. She is an amazing student, with honors, just doing very, very well in college. I couldn’t be prouder. She is not a smoker, and I never meant to paint her as such, and I want to get that record straight: While there was a moment in our household that we shared a smoke, she is not by any definition a smoker, and it does her a disservice for me to just say something so casually that one would interpret that as her being a smoker. My son, who is 18 now, is a different story. It involves things like anxiety and not being able to sleep. He has a doctor’s recommendation to smoke. I don’t need to go into our private issues with my son, but that is a whole other conversation; that’s a whole other thing that we need to look at as a country, as a society: the problems youth are facing and how cannabis can help.
You got a lot of flack when the story came out. How did that feel?
I was very sad; I truly was. I understand you can’t please everyone all the time, and people are not going to understand; they’re going to take the clickbait: “Melissa smokes with her kids!” “Melissa gets high with her kids!” It’s like, “Ahhh!” People are going to go about their day and their life just with that little thought back in their head — “Oh, that crazy Melissa Etheridge.” That’s just part of the dangers of speaking honestly and openly.
It’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, to say, “Hey, yes, that might be the headline, but there’s so much more to this.” I do not ever casually smoke with my children. I can count on one hand when that has happened with my grown children. It is not something I treat lightly about children under 18.
What about your own marijuana use: Is there anything you’d like to set the record straight on?
Just like I’m sure most parents would not like to drink in front of their children, I do not smoke in front of my young children. My own personal use? I understand that in this changing world, there are still many people who are conditioned to think that one who smokes cannabis every day is a “stoner” and a “pothead” and a “dropout.” That is what we have been conditioned to believe. And that is not true. Yes, I smoke cannabis every day — and I am a highly functioning individual! I have many, many things on my plate, and so does my wife. We are professionals; this is our choice of relaxation.
Does that mean I’m wrecking my family and everything’s going to pot? No! Raising my family is my No. 1 priority. Being a parent that reflects views to my children that I hope help them grow up safe and happy and healthy, that’s my No. 1 priority. Living in Southern California, sometimes I think I live in a lovely bubble, where smoking cannabis every night is not a crazy deal at all. It’s an alternative choice, and many choose it. I understand to the rest of the country it might be scandalous, and there’s not much I can do about that except keep living my life really, really openly and let everybody know what’s happening and move forward and be an example of a healthy and vibrant life.
Would you classify your marijuana use today as medicinal or recreational — or what?
I happen to have a belief that all cannabis use is medicinal, even if the person knows it or not. I happen to believe that it is medicinal for us to seek a reprieve from the left side of the brain, which is the problem-solving, go-get-’em, anxiety or worry part of our brain; we need relief from that. And yeah, I call that medicine. Is that recreational? Where do you draw the line? I don’t think you can draw the line between recreational and medicinal. It’s all a matter of opinion.
So why did you want to talk about your cannabis use in the first place?
I believe in the healing powers, the good powers — I believe that cannabis is an answer for a lot of our social problems, a lot of our opioid problems, a lot of our illnesses that we don’t know what to do with. You find that cannabis has incredible effect on these. So I feel very deeply — having gone through cancer, having begun using it myself, in my daily life… It’s much like when I was gay, a lesbian, back when you didn’t talk about that and no one understood what it meant. Coming out was weird, and you just wanted to give information; you just wanted to educate. And that is truly whenever I make myself available for these interviews, it’s truly my intention: to educate, to answer questions.
I know I’m speaking for thousands and thousands of mothers that are silently dealing with their children, their teenagers, who are not doing as well as others can — who have anxiety, who have panic disorders, who have ADHD and ADD. And the only options we have are Ritalin or Prozac, these horrible drugs. Ritalin is speed! And yet if you bring up cannabis as an option, it’s just demonized. I’m hoping that this conversation I’m having with you can open up some thought that there are alternatives here. And give mothers alternatives. Especially in states that have legalized medicinal cannabis.
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What do you want people to take away from this conversation?
This is a social issue that is not black and white. There are going to be people that are afraid of it; there are going to be people that choose not to be around it or not let their children be around it, and that’s their choice.