How will Canadian universities handle legal marijuana?

Legalization presents Canadian universities and colleges with new challenges. Can they cope?

marijuana use Canadian universities

Two women smoking marijuana. (PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)

Many students use marijuana responsibly, to wind down after an exam or to help them sleep, but universities must also account for problem users. (PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)
Many students use marijuana responsibly, to wind down after an exam or to help them sleep, but universities must also account for problem users. (PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)

Heading into his third year of university, declining grades paired with a mounting workload were almost enough to convince Halifax student Stephen Trainer to drop out of his program. When the stress of school was leading to progressively restless nights, Trainer’s doctor prescribed melatonin, a sleep aid. Frustrated by the side effects and an ever-increasing dosage, Trainer (whose name we have changed to protect his privacy) began instead to self-medicate with a small joint before bed.

Not only did his sleep improve, but so did his grade point average, which went from 2.4 to 3.9 in his final two years of undergrad. “I attribute some of that improvement to marijuana,” says 26-year-old Trainer, who has since completed his degree and is currently pursuing his M.B.A. “I’m not promoting it, but I definitely believe it helped me focus more on school.”

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Trainer defies the pot-smoker stereotype popular culture depicts: a lazy, zoned-out male sprawled on the couch beside a half-eaten bag of Cheetos. He has never been one to skip class to hit the bong. For him, cannabis became a preferred alternative to alcohol. When his friends were nursing a hangover after a night of drinking, Trainer was off to class, motivated to take on the day.

With Canada planning to legalize marijuana next year, it’s not just provincial governments and police forces grappling with the implications of legal weed. Post-secondary institutions also need to set new policies on whether pot can be consumed—and even sold—on campus. Earlier this year, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, a former professor, expressed concerns about the effects of marijuana on developing minds and said he’d prefer dispensaries and “cannabis lounges” didn’t appear at universities.

According to Geraint Osborne, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Alberta, Trainer’s responsible use of marijuana reflects the behaviours of most pot-smoking Canadians. “By and large, students use [cannabis] to chill out with friends, listen to music and watch movies,” Osborne says. “They use it as a reward. Once exams are done, they go out and get high—the same way others use alcohol.”

But Trainer also falls in the demographic of young males aged 20 to 24, who have been identified as the most likely to become problematic marijuana users, according to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in June. Michael Szafron, co-author of the study and associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health, argues it’s too early to know what the long-term consequences of legalization will be. Specifically, he’s concerned about marijuana’s impact on cognitive development for individuals who use it in their late teens to early 20s, before the brain is fully developed.

“My stance is that it should be banned,” says Szafron, noting greater accessibility to the drug risks increased impairment, affecting a student’s ability to perform in class. “If it is available that easily, what’s to stop a student who is anxious about exams from having a marijuana brownie with their Starbucks latte prior to the exam?”

Osborne argues that while there may be an initial increase in marijuana use across campuses, it will have more to do with the novelty of the situation than anything else. “Generally, people have reasons other than the law not to use marijuana,” he says. “I think as the stigma associated is reduced, people may become more open about their use. But it’s not going to change their patterns in any way.”

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Until now, Canadian universities have enforced zero-tolerance policies on the use or possession of marijuana on campus. Nevertheless, it has remained one of the most easily accessed and widely used recreational substances among students. A 2012 Canadian Community Health survey found 33 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds reported using marijuana within the past year. “I probably only know one or two people who have never smoked marijuana,” Trainer says.

Most universities are still working with various levels of government regarding their post-legalization policies. Osborne says the University of Alberta is currently in preliminary discussions, but he predicts marijuana will be treated in much the same way as other legal substances. “People are very worried about how we’re going to deal with this, but we already have policies in place regarding use of alcohol and tobacco on campus,” he says. “Cannabis is just going to fall under those existing policies.”

Simon Fraser University follows a similar tack. “Should it be legalized, the university would approach the policy implications across our campuses as we would the use of other legal substances,” says Mark LaLonde, chief safety officer at SFU.

“Until a legislative framework is in place, there are many unknowns,” says Steve Fitterer, vice-president of student affairs and campus life at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “Our current [smoking] policy is flexible enough to accommodate our community’s needs. At the same time, we are prepared to update our policy to reflect nuances related to marijuana.”

Osborne says Canadian universities and colleges will do well if they stick to their area of expertise: education. “We need to move to a harm-reduction model—which is much more effective than the war on drugs approach,” he says. “We need to educate people on the dangers of use and abuse and what it means to be a responsible user.”

Szafron stresses the importance of introducing educational seminars and presentations immediately, ahead of legalization. “We need an awareness campaign, so that if people haven’t been using it, and they decide to, they go in with their eyes open,” he says.

Trainer agrees. “In the end, people are going to make their own decisions—some good and some bad,” he says. “If you know the risks before you get to university, you can at least make educated choices.”

Use of marijuana by university students across Canada
Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Maclean’s student survey said they never smoke pot, while only a small percentage reported being weekly or daily users. (Reminder: All toking was self-reported.)

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Universities with a percentage of students reporting various levels of marijuana use.
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Programs with the largest percentage if students reporting any level of marijuana use.
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