Canadian universities tackle legal cannabis with wildly different policies

Plus, where do students report the highest rates of marijuana use?
Anthony A. Davis
Beautiful Young Asian Woman Smoking Outdoors At Night. (Ranta Images/iStock)

Cannabis has been a budding part of post-secondary life since at least 1964, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and some Stanford University pals formed the Merry Band of Pranksters, gobbled every psychedelic drug they could and toked their way across the U.S. in a Day-Glo bus, permanently injecting drug culture under the skin of campus life.

Ever since the Trudeau government tabled the Cannabis Act on April 13, 2017, setting Canada on the road to legalizing marijuana, universities have wrestled with how to approach campus cannabis policies. Some were still doing so even as the day of reefer reckoning happened on Oct. 17.

MORE: Which Canadian universities report highest use of marijuana?

Striking a balance between safeguarding student and faculty health and recognizing the right for adults of legal age to use recreational marijuana has been a queasy matter for post-secondary institutions. Students on some campuses are divided on the issue; at other schools, they’re shockingly apathetic. As the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis, “there just is no precedent,” says Kara Thompson, a St. Francis Xavier University psychology professor who has studied the long-term effects of cannabis on youth.

MORE: Canada’s top universities by student satisfaction

That’s resulted in “a bit of a ‘who is going to go first?’ approach,” Thompson says of the slow pace of cannabis policy development on campuses. In their cautious approach, Canadian universities are—though they have some leeway—mostly proceeding in lockstep with provincial and municipal laws regulating alcohol and tobacco use in public spaces. For example, Edmonton’s bylaws will permit smoking on sidewalks and in some parks; the University of Alberta’s policies are equally liberal.

In Calgary, however, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a former university professor, expressed concern about the negative impact of weed on young prefrontal cortexes, things are more restrictive. Calgary banned the smoking of marijuana in any Calgary public space. “That,” says Adam Brown, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and a fourth-year commerce student at the University of Alberta, “has really affected how Mount Royal and the University of Calgary, which are members of CASA, are designing their cannabis policies.”

The U of A could have chosen to be as restrictive. Though a survey of its own students indicated the majority opposed the smoking of cannabis on campus, the U of A nevertheless will permit the smoking and vaping of cannabis products in a small number of “safe, accessible” locations on campus. (Under the Cannabis Act, Canadian universities have no choice but to provide areas for students to use properly obtained medical cannabis.)

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The U of A has also indicated that despite allowing cannabis use in certain areas, it will prohibit growing, cooking, smoking or vaping cannabis in university residences or buildings. And there will be no form of cannabis consumption allowed at university and student group events for at least one year, “to assess liability and other risks.” In formulating its policy, the U of A said it was “aligning itself with the laws and values of the surrounding community.”

But deciding how to reflect community “values” is a hazy business at best. At Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., Wade Tomko figures TRU got it wrong for the 14,000 students on its campus. Though smoking tobacco is allowed in designated areas, and alcohol has long been served on campus at the licensed Campus Activity Centre and certain events, TRU is banning all recreational cannabis use on campus. “I honestly think a lot of students see this ban as an infringement on their rights,” says Tomko, 23, editor-in-chief of the student paper, the Omega. “It doesn’t really make sense to me that TRU is going to ban cannabis while at the same time allowing people to consume cannabis. But honestly, even with the ban, I think a lot of students are just going to ignore it.”

And why wouldn’t they? Long before legalization, at TRU and practically every other Canadian university, pot smokers had little trepidation about lighting up in parking and smoking areas, or other inconspicuous campus crannies. TRU security, says Tomko, never did anything about it then, when it was illegal. That won’t change, regardless of what the campus policy is after Oct. 17, he suggests. “It’s going to be legal. And people are going to want to smoke it, as they have already done for years and years.

Ironically, one TRU student who probably won’t be sneakily smoking recreational weed on campus is a fourth-year journalism student who asked that her real name not be used; she fears she could be banned from travelling to the U.S. for past use of recreational marijuana if identified. “I am 100 per cent addicted to pot,” admits the 24-year-old we’ll call Reba. She was three days into trying to quit recreational pot when she spoke to Maclean’s.

Until recently, Reba partied on pot throughout her university education. When she was 18, she was diagnosed with ADHD and an anxiety disorder. Her doctor prescribed her non-cannabis medication. But at age 21, she recounts, “I still had such bad anxiety, even with my meds. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t sleep. I am just very anxiety-prone.” In 2017, a cannabis dispensary opened in Kamloops, not far from the university. It was a place where people could bring prescription medications from their doctors that they didn’t want anymore. Dispensary staff would then recommend cannabis-based alternatives and give customers a marijuana medical card so they could legally use them.

Last October, Reba was involved in a car crash, and she still suffers severe neck and shoulder pain from the resulting whiplash. Now she’s trying to use only medical cannabis derivative products. The Kamloops dispensary sold her cannabis oils to deal with her various conditions, which she smokes through a Flyte pen, a vaping device. Her pen gives off aromas such as blueberry, not the skunky stink of a joint. Lacking THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, her medical marijuana doesn’t get her high. “It’s like a muscle relaxant in some aspects. It’s just for my own personal wellbeing,” she says. “People at TRU aren’t really opposed to it when I use it.”

Though she would like to use her Flyte pen occasionally in class to prevent stiffening up, TRU’s new policy won’t allow that. Those with medical marijuana cards can only smoke cannabis products in designated areas, which will likely be the same areas tobacco smokers currently use. After legalization, she worries students wanting cannabis for medical ailments may not want to go through the hassle of obtaining a medical marijuana card. “Some aren’t going to have these medical clearances that TRU is wanting. These people with chronic conditions might be prohibited from the smoking pits.”

But how big a deal are campus cannabis policies for most students anyway? When TRU sought student feedback on its draft policy in September, says TRU spokesperson Darshan Lindsay, “my understanding is we were not overwhelmed with feedback. We have more comments right now around a proposed policy about pets on campus than we have on this particular issue.” That policy arose after several dog-bite incidents last spring. “That has hit a few more chords than cannabis,” says Lindsay.

Even so, some students are pushing back against their schools, such as at Brandon University, which announced more restrictive policies recently. “Feel free to refer to us as a no-toking university,” says Katie Gross, dean of students at BU. With slightly more than 3,000 students, the university has banned recreational pot use on campus, staying well within the lines of Manitoba provincial policy, which prohibits cannabis use in all public spaces. But in an interview with the Brandon Sun, Brandon University Students’ Union (BUSU) president Justin Shannon promised to raise BUSU’s concerns about the policy with the university’s board of governors. BUSU wants recreational pot-smoking areas—after all, tobacco, a much more addictive drug, can be smoked in six areas at BU. And, though smoking both tobacco and cannabis is banned in BU residences, alcohol—a serious problem on many campuses—is permitted for those aged 18 and older.

In addition to the policy that includes the recreational cannabis ban, Gross says the university will also have a responsible substance use and harm-reduction policy in place by Oct. 17. Under the policy, which covers a broad spectrum of impairments including cannabis, alcohol and prescription medication abuse, someone showing impairment could be asked to leave a room, take counselling or, in extreme instances, face suspension or expulsion. “We are going to take a progressive punishment approach,” says Gross. “We’ll have a conversation first; find out if anything else is going on. Ninety-five per cent of the time we can resolve things informally. Suspension and expulsion are the last parts of that ladder.”

For Brandon University, the aim of its harm-reduction campaign is to educate students about a wide range of intoxicants, and to inculcate a good-Samaritan “wingman” mentality among students. “It’s being mindful of making proper choices and asking questions,” says Gross. “Getting students to think critically about their decision-making is what we are going to focus on.”

But according to various university officials who spoke with Maclean’s, it’s challenging for them to think critically about harm-reduction strategies with little or no help from the Trudeau government. Says Gross: “I would have loved to have seen [the government say:] ‘Here is a package of material. Here are the best ways to inform your faculty and staff of harm-reduction strategies for your students.’ We did not receive that yet. So we reached out to our agencies to receive the most accurate and current information.” The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba was one of them. “They were helpful. Those are my people,” says Gross.

St. Francis Xavier’s Thompson says studies on the impact of cannabis use on youth, such as the one she co-researched, underscore why harm-reduction education campaigns will be critical to help keep students from going overboard on marijuana in the wake of legalization. “We have huge issues with mental health problems on campuses already,” she says. “We have huge rates of alcohol problems on campuses. And there is a lot of research that using those two substances together can exacerbate the impact of either.”

Thompson agrees that federal support for cannabis education campaigns at Canadian universities seems lacking. She’s seen no federal initiatives at St. Francis Xavier. “Not at all. I think we are very unprepared from a public-health perspective,” she says. “And frankly, I think we are a little too unconcerned with the potential harms. In general, there is a lack of knowledge on how to safely use cannabis.”

That’s also a major concern for the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). Dessy Pavlova chairs the CSSDP and has studied drug policy and the cannabis industry for more than a decade. She says the CSSDP believes total bans on recreational cannabis use on campuses “is bad policy” that stigmatizes users. “By admitting it happens and instead offering harm-reduction strategies that could potentially reduce use, or help people make choices to consume more safely, there is a balance.”

For the most part, says Pavlova, harm-reduction campaigns at universities have been student-led. CASA’s Brown said in late September that his organization was close to finishing posters and other educational materials to give students more information about cannabis. He said CASA’s posters will be edgy, with graphics and catchy slogans that engage students “and help them, perhaps, realize they don’t know as much as they should.” Brown also thinks universities should get more help from the federal government through mandated awareness and harm-reduction plans.

That help has been available for some time, and more is coming, counters Tammy Jarbeau, a spokesperson for Health Canada. In addition to web-based resources, the department sent public education campaigns to music festivals, fairs and sporting events across Canada. On Sept. 7, it also started appearing at colleges and universities across Canada, beginning with Toronto’s Seneca College and Vancouver’s UBC, and will continue to do so throughout fall. “The total planned investment in cannabis public education, awareness and surveillance is more than $100 million over six years,” says Jarbeau. “This includes $62.5 million over five years, proposed in Budget 2018, to support the involvement of community-based organizations and Indigenous organizations that are educating their communities on the risks associated with cannabis use.”

As for any fears that reefer madness will break out in post-secondary institutions on Oct. 17, they aren’t shared by the student organizations and university officials Maclean’s spoke with. “It’s really unlikely the rates of use are going to change much,” says the CSSDP’s Pavlova. “There may be a surge initially. But with more education, I suspect in the long term we will actually see students use cannabis less, because it will be a taboo being lifted. And a lot of the time youth do things either out of curiosity or rebellion.”

Cannabis use by school

Results as reported on the Maclean’s 2019 student survey

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Cannabis use by program

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