Marijuana, pills, cocaine seized in schools across Winnipeg

Drugs like marijuana and illicit pills are seized at Winnipeg schools in every corner of the city, including elementary schools, says data the CBC obtained through an access to information request.

Data from access to information request shows 86 seizures, 37 charges for drug offences over last 5 years

Marijuana is the most common substance seized at Winnipeg schools, says data from the Winnipeg Police Service. (Simon Charland/CBC)

Drugs like marijuana and Xanax are seized at Winnipeg schools in virtually every corner of the city, including at elementary schools, says data the CBC obtained through an access to information request.

Winnipeg police have made 86 drug seizures and laid 37 charges over the last five years for drug possession and trafficking. 

Seizures happened at suburban and inner-city high schools alike, at middle schools and in four elementary schools.

"It's a citywide problem. It doesn't matter where you live. The more money you have, the more expensive drugs are going to get," said Patrol Sgt. Wendy Basic, who oversees school education for Winnipeg police.

The 86 drug seizures over five years are likely a small sample of a larger issue, experts told the CBC.

Normally police only get involved in reports of drug use as a "last resort," said Basic.

It's up to the school to report crime and police officers prefer less punitive responses that keep kids in school, she said.

Sometimes the solution is contacting Child and Family Services because a child's home life is unsafe; other times it is getting them counselling, Basic said.

"If it becomes an issue and nothing's helping, police will take a law enforcement role in it and push that person through the criminal justice system."

While Winnipeg police did not provide details on the quantity of drugs seized, in Brandon, seizures of marijuana in high schools ranged in size from 0.2 grams to five grams over the last three years.

Drugs that were seized 

Most of the drug seizures at Winnipeg schools — 64 per cent — were of cannabis; three per cent were cocaine and the remaining 33 per cent were reported as "other drugs."

The catch-all term refers to substances (most likely pills and powders) that likely contain at least one of 30 different restricted chemicals, such as: hydriodic acid, an ingredient used to make meth; safrole, used to make MDMA or ecstasy; and norfentanyl, a metabolite of fentanyl.

For non-easily identifiable drugs (i.e. pills and powders), police only send a substance for lab tests if charges are laid, a Winnipeg police spokesperson said.

According to data obtained by CBC, 43 per cent of the drug seizures lead to charges.

That means when officers cannot identify a drug themselves (by smell, for example) and the seizure did not lead to charges, the unidentified drug is recorded as "other drug" and the substance's active ingredient is never found out.

Basic, who directly supervises four school resource officers, said after marijuana and alcohol, one of the drugs most commonly found in schools is the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, or alprazolam.

Other names for the drug, said Winnipeg high school students the CBC spoke to, include "bars" and "zans."

The anti-anxiety medication can have effects similar to alcohol but doesn't cause the telltale smell on a user's breath. If abused, alprazolam, a depressant, can slow down the heart to the point where a person can lose consciousness and in some cases die. 

Danger of pills and powders

Parents should be worried if teens are using pills and powders to get high, said Rebecca Saah, assistant professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary.

While the dangerous opioid fentanyl has not been found in marijuana, it has been found in cocaine and heroin trafficked in Canada, she said.

"Basically no pills or powders are safe right now. People don't know what's in their supply."

Several Dakota Collegiate students weigh in on the abuse of Xanax, one of many drugs seized at Winnipeg schools, according to data obtained by CBC News. 0:39

Cocaine was found in three schools in Winnipeg — Dakota Collegiate (a high school), Victor Mager School (a kindergarten to Grade 8 school) and River East Collegiate (a high school).

She said the fact that pills and powders are being used by teens should prompt educators and parents to ensure young people understand how to recognize signs of an overdose and learn how to administer naloxone — a medication which reverses the effect of an opioid overdose — even if the kids are not knowingly consuming opioids.

"They are worst-case scenarios and not fun conversations to have, but I think it's essential information to equip teenagers with."

Eight people under the age of 18 in Manitoba have died in the last 10 years from illicit drug overdoses, according to the chief medical examiner. Three additional young people died of alcohol poisoning over the same period.

At the four elementary schools where drugs were found, three were seizures of cannabis and one was a seizure of "other drugs."

Basic said the seizure records include both drugs found on youth and drugs found on school property, such as on a playground or field, potentially left behind by people with no connection to the school.

Pot still viewed as 'harmless' 

Nick Davis-Peters, a school-based Addictions Foundation Manitoba counsellor, has heard of a student taken away in an ambulance after overdosing.

Davis-Peters provides confidential addiction counselling to students at two high schools in Winnipeg — Garden City Collegiate and West Kildonan Collegiate.

While police did not report any drug seizures at Garden City, at West Kildonan, there were five incidents and three charges laid over the last five years.

"Things are definitely steady here in terms of the work I do," Davis-Peters said.

Behind the counsellor's desk are posters warning about the dangers of overdosing, and taped behind his door is a picture of two pilots smoking a joint in a cockpit, with the question, "If it doesn't make sense here, why does it make sense when you drive?" printed underneath. 

Davis-Peters said it's a conversation starter with students. His role is to answer any and all questions they have when it comes to drugs and guide them to supports that could help with substance abuse, including residential programs.

By far, cannabis is the most common substance students use, Davis-Peters said.

It may even be more common than alcohol at the schools he works in, he said.

Canadian youth are among the heaviest users of marijuana in the world. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse says about 22 per cent of youth surveyed in 2013 said they use the drug.

Given the federal government's plans to make pot legal by Canada Day, Davis-Peters said there is more work to do informing young people about the risks before July.

"There's still a belief that cannabis is harmless."

Getting ready for legal pot

He and Saah advocate for a harm-reduction approach to discussions about drugs with teens. A large part of that is passing on good information to students so they can make fact-based decisions now and when they grow up.

Cannabis, for one, has been shown to have lasting negative impacts on cognition if used regularly by young people, said Saah, but she admits more research on the drug is still needed.

​Sherri Rollins, chair of the Winnipeg School Division, said school boards are still waiting to find out details of the provincial government's plan to regulate pot.

She said students from elementary school to high school learn about drugs. Rollins wants a wide perimeter around schools where marijuana retail sales are prohibited once it's legalized.

Saah also supports the idea of a wide buffer zone around schools.

"These are the things that are more likely to affect youths, in my view, and it's very wise from a public health standpoint to be conservative."

The Manitoba government plans to legislate a public-private hybrid model for selling pot in the province. Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen promised in November the model will keep marijuana out of the hands of youth.

Drugs like marijuana and Xanax are seized at Winnipeg schools in virtually every corner of the city, including at elementary schools, says data the CBC obtained through an access to information request. 3:25

About the Author

Laura Glowacki

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Laura Glowacki is based in Winnipeg. Reach her at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca and find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC.