Marijuana will become legal in Canada on 17 October. Some students can hardly wait, but the question is whether their universities are ready.
In curricular terms, the institutional response has been impressive. Many Canadian universities have already begun new courses to prepare their students to thrive in the cannabis industry, which is expected to grow like the proverbial weed post-legalisation. For instance, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in British Columbia, has linked up with the federal government’s National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education to offer an online course on the production and marketing of marijuana. So far, about 1,200 students have completed the eight-week diploma. No doubt outreach programmes will soon be springing up in shopping malls across the province.
It’s less clear, however, that universities are adequately prepared for the inevitable increase in cannabis use among students. Even without the imminent legalisation, more Canadians have been using cannabis. According to Statistics Canada, use of the drug has more than doubled since 1985; in 2015, 28 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds admitted to having used it.
Some Canadian campuses are planning to impose blanket bans on the smoking of both tobacco and cannabis. Regarding the latter, this is in line with US practice. Even the most liberal institutions in the nine states in which cannabis has been legalised, such as the University of California, do not allow students to smoke pot on their campuses because the drug remains illegal under federal law. Violating that law would imperil institutions’ federal funding.
But Canadian universities have a choice, and it is one that requires a careful consideration of the evidence around the effects of cannabis and an honest appraisal of what policy stances seem reasonable and enforceable in a permissive era.
The positive spin that advocates put on smoking marijuana is well known. Students argue, for instance, that smoking weed is much safer than injecting opioids. No one will argue against that. Others claim that excessive alcohol use is far more damaging than the occasional joint. In a recent article in Maclean’s, a Halifax university student credited marijuana with rescuing his studies: smoking a small joint at the end of a busy day improved his sleep and, consequently, his course grades, he claimed.
Nevertheless, a number of studies show that using marijuana has serious negative effects on the brains of young people, particularly on their cognitive function and their risk of developing psychosis. Many users wrongly believe that cannabis’ main active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) exits the body quickly; in fact, it can be detected days later in police tests and can negatively affect academic performance.
A 2012 report by Duke University shows that the earlier and the more frequently an individual uses pot, the greater their loss of intellectual function. Adults who begin using cannabis in their teens have a significant drop in their IQs by the time they are 40. Moreover, recent research shows that consuming marijuana and alcohol together can significantly increase the intoxicating effect of both substances. These consequences can be very serious for students and universities alike.
Education is not the only way to slow the consumption of marijuana, but it is probably the most obvious remedy for administrators in the education business. However, students need real information that avoids both scare tactics and blanket reassurances based on unrepresentative anecdotes. A good example is Carleton University’s web portal, which, as well as providing considerable amounts of information on marijuana’s physical, cognitive and long-term health effects, also features links to advice, counselling and addiction services.
Administrators can develop more realistic and effective policies by including students in discussions. Issues to be considered include whether designated pot-smoking areas should be established on campus, similar to the areas already designated for smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. Deciding such issues now, ahead of legalisation, will avoid a confused winter whiteout and help to keep Canada’s students safe, healthy and happy – though not too happy, pharmacologically speaking.
NOTE: This commentary was also published in Times Higher Education.