“Early and frequent cannabis use is linked with reduced IQ, lower school performance and increased risk of dropping out.” 
Although the Canadian government has changed recreational cannabis use laws, it is presently illegal to use for anyone under the age of 19 everywhere except Quebec and Alberta, where the age will be 18, (Subject to change). Therefore, in theory very few of your students will be affected by this new legislation.
However, like alcohol, we know that some students will use cannabis before the legal age.
We are facing a significant change in the way recreational cannabis will be obtained and consumed and that may bring with it some changes in the way our schools address drug education in the future.
Some facts about youth and cannabis:
- Cannabis is often the first drug kids are offered.¹
- Canadian youth are the top users of marijuana in the developed world according to a 2013 UNICEF Office of Research report.
- The rate of Cannabis use is two times higher among Canadian youth aged 15 – 24 than it is for adults.
- The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses, does not mature fully until around the age of 25 years. 
- Cannabis use affects the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, decision- making and executive function.
- Cannabis, like any other drug can lead to dependence or addiction. It affects the brain’s reward system in the same way as other addictive drugs. The likelihood of developing problem use or addiction increases considerably for those who start young.
- Over one third (37%) of teens feel that driving high (after marijuana use) is not as risky as drunk driving, while one in four high school seniors say they have ridden in a car with a high driver.
- Four out of ten fatally injured drivers who had used cannabis prior to the crash were between 16 and 24 years of age
What are young people’s views about cannabis use?
Health Canada’s 2017 Canadian Cannabis survey, gives us some insight into what Canadians aged 16 and older believe about cannabis use. Here are some relevant highlights:
- 28% of respondents considered smoking cannabis occasionally for non-medical purposes is completely socially acceptable, compared to 19% for using tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars or snuff) and 56% for consuming alcohol.
- 64% of respondents who reported using cannabis in the past 12 months think cannabis could be habit forming, compared to 80% for non-users.
- 9% of respondents who reported using cannabis in the past 12 months drove within 2 hours of consumption in their lifetime. Of those respondents, 15% consumed cannabis and alcohol; and 8% consumed cannabis and another drug.
- Students in grades 7 to 12 were asked how difficult they thought it would be to get cannabis if they wanted it and 41% (approximately 870,000) of students reported that they thought it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain.
How will this new legislation impact my school?
Time will tell, but at the very least, there will be many cannabis related questions from staff, parents and students.
Let’s take a look at some of the questions your staff may be asking.
Staff may ask:
Will I be provided with the information I need in order to answer questions honestly while maintaining the integrity of our school and my own personal integrity?
- What resources do you and your staff have in place to address substance use and misuse?
- Do they need to be updated?
- Are they relevant to your school and your students?
A really helpful resource from Drug Free Kids Canada, called “Cannabis Talk Kit- Know how to talk with your teen” can be found at https://www.drugfreekidscanada.org/
Although this kit was designed with parents and caregivers in mind, The Cannabis Talk Kit is a resource that can also provide you as an administrator and/or educator with evidence based information about cannabis. Along with some effective and practical tools, this kit can to help you and your staff set the stage for balanced and productive discussions with young people about cannabis and substance use.
Here’s a sample of what you can find in the Cannabis Talk Kit:
- The facts about Cannabis and youth
- Short and long term effects of cannabis use.
- Cannabis and the developing teenage brain
- Cannabis and driving – Many young drivers get behind the wheel after smoking pot.
- Practical tips and tools for how to address the use of cannabis and other drugs with your kids
- Sample questions that may arise and expert advice on how to answer them
Are there any legal implications connected to in- class discussions and disclosures that might arise?
You will already be familiar with your School Board’s policies on classroom disclosures but you might want to verify if anything has been updated recently that can answer this question.
- Can you suspend a student for smelling like cannabis?
- Should staff members divulge current or past use of cannabis when talking to their students?
- As a staff member, are there any rules about personal use outside of the school setting?
Clearly, parents, teachers, social workers, psychologists, guidance counsellors and police will have to deal with these questions now that recreational cannabis is legal.
What grade should discussions about cannabis begin?
At Drug Free Kids Canada, we believe parents and the adults in children’s lives can play a major part in preventing early drug use. As the administrator for your school, you have the opportunity to set the stage for your staff to reach young students in the classroom with balanced information and open dialogue before they make the choice to use cannabis and other drugs. We at DFK feel that, given this information at an early age, students will have the tools they need to make smart, informed choices about cannabis and other drugs. That said, we realize that some youth may begin using at an early age and if so, we understand the need to engage these young people in effective harm reduction strategies.
Most school boards in Canada introduce classroom discussions and activities related to drugs at the grade six level. Generally, while learning about cannabis is specifically addressed in Grade 6, student learning about substance use, abuse and misuse is part of a continuum of learning that extends from Grades 1 to 12. See: Cannabis Information for Educators, Summer, 2018. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/healthyschools/cannabis-fact-sheet-en.pdf.
Found in most cases under the Physical and Health strand in the curriculum, these lessons may need to be tweaked to include the latest information about cannabis use and misuse, prevention and harm reduction and the key message of delaying first use while the adolescent brain continues to develop. Discussions about medical cannabis, edible cannabis product (which will not be legal for sale until Fall of 2019), driving in a car with someone under the influence, dependence and health risks are just a few of the necessary elements to be included in new curricula.
How can I address yet another topic in an already overcrowded curriculum?
This question will be very familiar to you as administrators. As always, it is important for educators to feel that they are addressing all of the necessary curriculum objectives. Cannabis education, as mentioned above, already fits into the Health and Physical Education strand but perhaps it can also be integrated across the curriculum in other areas such as the Arts, Language, Math and Social Studies, Social Sciences and Humanities and Canadian and World Studies – Law.
Guidance counsellors will also be busy! This will definitely be a team effort.
Check with your local Ministry for new curriculum ideas and suggestions.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction http://www.ccdus.ca provides a helpful on-line learning module resource for staff that teach adolescents: http://www.ccdus.ca/module/cannabis-adolescence-EN/story_html5.html
Addressing these and other pertinent questions from your staff is just the beginning.
As educators in the 21st century, we manage change well. This will be another co-learning experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As the leader of your school, you set the tone and create the collaborative environment for learning with your staff, parents and community. You’ve got this!
1 CCSA 2015 The Effects of Cannabis Use on Adolescence
2 (CTADS 2015)
3 (George and Vaccarino 2015)
4 CCSA 2015 The Effects of Cannabis Use on Adolescence
5 Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2008
6 DFK Attitudinal Tracking Survey 2017
7 Beirness, D.J., Beasley, E.E., & Boase, P. (2013). Drug use among fatally injured drivers in Canada. In B. Watson & M. Sheehan (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs 26
8 Canadian Cannabis Survey, December 19, 2017 – Ottawa, ON – Government of Canada
9 2014-15 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey