Winter 2019

Legalization of cannabis: an opportunity for schools

The deficit perspective, so dominant in our society, conditions us to focus on challenges in the face of change. Yet change also brings opportunities. This article encourages principals and other school leaders to consider a more asset-focused approach to cannabis legalization.

Cannabis – like other psychoactive substances – has been used by humans for thousands of years. Legalization provides adults who use cannabis with a safe supply produced and sold under strict regulation. Cannabis use and possession among youth is still prohibited. Yet the legalization of cannabis use for adults provides schools with an opportunity to help students develop a broader understanding of drug use and the skills to manage cannabis and other drugs in preparation for adulthood.

A primary responsibility of schools is to develop literacy. This involves far more than teaching students to decode oral or written language. To be literate, students must be able to analyse the meaning and utility of texts as well as reflect on the influence those texts may have on them. In this sense, “literacy is a social practice, with political and economic potentials and ramifications” (Freebody & Luke, 1990, p. 15). Definitions of literacy include both technical and purposive elements. Literacy is the “proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential” (National Institute for Literacy, cited in Peerson & Saunders, 2009, p. 287). Within the broad category of literacy, one can distinguish a wide range of literacies: e.g., computer literacy, cultural literacy, financial literacy, media literacy, scientific literacy, and—health literacy.

Health literacy is an asset “enabling individuals to exert greater control over their health and the range of personal, social and environmental determinants of health” (Nutbeam, 2008, p. 2074). This can be thought of at several levels. At a basic functional level, health literacy involves rudimentary reading and writing skills and foundational knowledge about health conditions and immediate determinants. Yet, health literacy also involves communicative and social skills needed to make sense of health-related information and apply it in changing circumstances. At a still deeper level, health literacy entails the capacity to critically analyse information in order to influence the social, economic and environmental determinants of health in pursuit of individual and collective well-being (Chinn, 2011).

Schools now have increased opportunity to build health literacy related to cannabis. Young people benefit from developing competencies that will allow them to grow and thrive in their communities—communities in which cannabis use is now legal for adults. Children will continue to receive mixed messages about cannabis. The emerging industry will extol the benefits. Pop culture idols, peers, parents and other adults will provide mixed examples. Traditional health messaging will warn of the potential harms. How will young people make sense of these conflicting messages?

As they grow up, youth will be best served by having a more complete understanding of cannabis, and substance use more generally, which could provide students with the confidence to make informed decisions about cannabis and other drug use. Legalization, by removing a taboo, offers schools a unique opportunity to advance students’ educational goals, and help them develop critical thinking skills for life in an ever-changing world.

Most health education (including education about drugs) has focused on risk and behaviour change. This assumes that health is an individual quality and risk is embodied in lifestyle choices. The aim of this education is to change behaviour in pre-determined ways through the provision of information and the persuasion techniques of social marketing. This approach to health education has not been able to demonstrate effectiveness relative to its goal of behaviour change. Even if this approach could be made effective, there is concern about its ethical desirability—telling people how we think they ought to live (Buchanan, 2006, 2008).

A more humanistic and democratic paradigm for health education recognizes that health is influenced by living conditions as well as lifestyle choices and that students, individually and collectively, need to develop action competence in order to increase their ability to take action and generate changes to improve their well-being (Jensen, 2000). Fundamental to this model is a commitment to health literacy (Renwick, 2017). A robust health literacy helps students develop the capacity to interact with environments in which drug use is common. It helps them explore who they are, learn how to make informed decisions, and develop critical thinking and strategies they can call upon when facing new and challenging situations. Health literacy provides children and youth with the knowledge and skills to process the often conflicting information to which they are exposed and make healthy, responsible choices (Renwick, 2017).

Thus, the role of education in this process is to help children learn how to think (not tell them what to think). This means shifting our pedagogy toward inquiry or constructivist education—changing the focus from content to capacity. Critical competencies for drug literacy might include the capacity to:

  • assess the complex ways in which drugs impact the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities and societies
  • explore and appreciate diversity in the reasons people use drugs, the impacts of drug use and the social attitudes toward various drugs
  • recognize binary constructs (e.g., good vs. bad) and assess their limitation in addressing complex social issues like drug use
  • develop personal and social strategies to manage the risks, benefits and harms related to drugs

Since drug use has been integral in human history and development, these competencies cut across all subject areas. Opportunities abound in English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and Mathematics, among others. Traditional drug education efforts have not been successful partly because they have focused on drugs themselves rather than the place of drugs in past and present human societies.

In relation to cannabis, schools can promote critical thinking that will provide students the power to manage their own well-being as well as that of their communities. Ways schools can help include:

  • Having open conversations about cannabis and drug use that encourage students to apply the same critical skills they use to learn about other topics inside and outside of school
  • Asking more questions that encourage reflection and dialogue, rather than stating a “fact” which tends to shut down conversation or spark unproductive debate
  • Using existing curriculum to explore the human phenomenon of drug use while studying different cultures and historical periods, or drawing attention to allusions to drugs in literature or other texts, nurtures critical thinking about drugs in a wide range of learning contexts

Some students might decide to use cannabis despite the legal restrictions. When these situations occur, they can create an opportunity for teachers, administrators and students to discuss the complex nature of cannabis, who uses it, and why. Such an open discussion can help young people decide for themselves what role cannabis may, or may not, have in their lives and how, as communities, we can best live together. After all, this is what education is all about.

Dan Reist is an Assistant Director at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. He is the lead investigator in the development of the iMinds approach to drug/gambling education.
Buchanan, D. R. (2006). A New Ethic for Health Promotion: Reflections on a Philosophy of Health Education for the 21st Century. Health Education & Behavior, 33(3), 290–304.
Buchanan, D. R. (2008). Autonomy, Paternalism, and Justice: Ethical Priorities in Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 98(1), 15–21.
Chinn, D. (2011). Critical health literacy: A review and critical analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 73(1), 60–67.
Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7–16.
Jensen, B. B. (2000). Health knowledge and health education in the democratic health‐promoting school. Health Education, 100(4), 146–153.
Nutbeam, D. (2008). The evolving concept of health literacy. Social Science & Medicine, 67(12), 2072–2078.
Peerson, A., & Saunders, M. (2009). Health literacy revisited: what do we mean and why does it matter? Health Promotion International, 24(3), 285–296.
Renwick, K. (2017). Critical health literacy in 3D. Frontiers in Education, 2(40), 1–5.

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