The beginning of fall semester this year coincides with the official start date of cannabis legalization (October 17). This presents academic institutions with a number of opportunities and challenges related to modernizing campus cannabis policies. A good place for them to start would be through proactive education.
All students—from those who use to those who don’t, to those considering trying it and those looking to quit—should have access to the best evidence on the effects of cannabis use and the policies in place to govern it. Knowledge is important for making healthy choices about whether and how to use cannabis personally, and it will help students get directly involved in conversations about campus policy.
I sit on the board of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which has been engaging students on legalization and cannabis use through chapters at post-secondary institutions across the country. The group recently published a toolkit, “Sensible Cannabis Education,” to promote healthful discussions in a safe environment. The package spends a lot of time on harm reduction and includes a sample “pull away” curriculum for schools, as well as sections on how parents can discuss cannabis use, the effects criminalization has had on people’s lives and other topics with their children.
Another key aspect of effective education is having the right research, an area that is currently lacking and where Canada could become a global leader post-legalization. The University of Calgary has already begun to fill this gap in our knowledge by publishing several informational resources on Canada’s cannabis laws, as well as a policy primer aimed specifically at students (see go.ucalgary.ca/explorecannabis.html).
In a recent survey conducted at the University of Calgary, 52% of students said they had used cannabis in their lifetime—double the number claimed on the website of the Canadian Centre for Substance Use. While some may see this as an increase in use, it may simply be an increase in transparency about use.
As Canada’s cannabis policy changes, so too are public perceptions. Many students may simply feel more comfortable sharing honest feedback about their use, which in turn helps create data that more accurately reflects cannabis use among young people.
Changes in social perceptions also help us broach a long-standing issue in public health and drug policy: the role of stigma. Cannabis users have long been put down as “stoners” or “potheads” by authority figures, the media and in pop culture. At the same time, in the same University of Calgary survey, 70% of students noted that better campus services for cannabis cessation would be valuable. Now that students are becoming more comfortable discussing their use, they may also be more comfortable seeking help managing their habits.
Stigma is a barrier to open and honest conversations about drug use. Students struggling with mental health on campus are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. With mental health on campus an increasingly hot topic, reducing or eliminating the stigma surrounding drug use will be instrumental in promoting wellness in our student communities, and the world at large.
Education doesn’t end at health and wellness. Job creation is another considerable aspect of turning an illicit, black market economy into a burgeoning legitimate industry. Some schools are already ahead of the curve, offering specialized classes for students interested in pursuing a job in the legal cannabis space. Kwantlen Polytechnic University offers a Cannabis Professional series, for example, and Durham College has just rolled out a Cannabis Industry Specialization certificate. Course content in these programs, from the economics and business of cannabis to law and criminology, may need updating to account for changes in federal drug policy.
While possession and consumption of cannabis will be legal under the Cannabis Act, the government has set strict regulations on both, and policies will vary from province to province. Students planning on using will need to know these differences. In Quebec, for example, public consumption will be allowed, while in Ontario the only place you can legally consume is in a home that you own. Many young adults rent or live in residence, leaving students and young people in Ontario with few legal spaces to use cannabis.
Just as provincial approaches to cannabis will vary to suit the needs of the provinces, campuses will likely employ different strategies to address the unique needs of their student bodies. Which is why it’s so important for faculty and students to engage in collaborative discussions surrounding cannabis use, public health, human rights, and drug policy as a whole.
Heather D'Alessio is a drug policy reform and harm reduction activist currently based in Ottawa.