Pot legalization: What will it mean for schools?

Instead of fearing classrooms full of students in a pot-induced haze, experts are hopeful that making marijuana legal will open up opportunities to better educate young people about the risks of using the drug.

Codes of conduct ensure there's no need to fear a generation of stoned students, educators say

'A lot of kids today are fairly knowledgeable about alcohol and tobacco and yet ... they entertain a number of myths about marijuana,' says Art Steinmann, manager of the substance use health promotion program with the Vancouver School Board. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The revelation that the federal government will legalize marijuana in Canada by July 1, 2018, has sparked a flurry of speculation about possible implications. 

But those imagining a disastrous Canada-wide increase in high school students showing up stoned in classrooms need not worry, school boards say.

"Even if it may be decriminalized and even if a student may be of the age in which he or she can purchase marijuana, our code of conduct is still in place," said John Bowyer, superintendent of safety and security for the Durham District School Board, east of Toronto.

John Bowyer of the Durham District School Board says even if a student were old enough to legally buy marijuana, it would still be a violation of the code of conduct to attend class under the influence. (Nicole Ireland/CBC )

"What we expect is that our students come to school prepared to learn and ... in a state of mind that they can be safe and they can learn appropriately." 

Earlier this week, CBC News learned that Ottawa would set a minimum age of 18 to buy pot, but the provinces will be able to increase that age. How marijuana is distributed and sold will also be up to each provincial government.

The Durham board is waiting to get that kind of specific information from the Ontario government, Bowyer said. But in general terms, he sees potential marijuana policies as similar to those governing alcohol use. 

"Right now alcohol is legal to be purchased by someone who is 19 years of age or older [in Ontario], but we do expect that students do not show up to the school in possession of alcohol or having consumed alcohol."

The Ontario government's health and physical education curriculum already teaches students about substance use and addiction. The Durham board runs a "healthy choices" program, which focuses on the risks associated with alcohol and other drugs, whether legal or illegal. 

Legalization likely won't "dramatically" change the conversation with students about marijuana, Bowyer said, because the impact and possible consequences of using it remain the same. 

But Art Steinmann, manager of the substance use health promotion program with the Vancouver School Board, hopes legalization will actually help "normalize" conversations about pot and lead to more educational opportunities.

Legalizing marijuana will give educators the opportunity to speak with students about the health risks associated with using pot at a young age, says Art Steinmann, a Vancouver School Board manager. (Vancouver School Board)

"A lot of kids today are fairly knowledgeable about alcohol and tobacco and yet ... they entertain a number of myths about marijuana," Steinmann said. "They think it's a harmless herb for the most part." 

Although he doesn't have hard data to prove it, Steinmann said, he believes the fact that pot is illegal means people in authority might not talk about it with students as much as they do about alcohol. 

"A lot of, say, classroom teachers, or even school counsellors, gym teachers, coaches, whatever, probably don't really feel comfortable or don't feel they want to get into discussions on that," he said. "[But] those same people might be comfortable with saying, 'You know, if you ever do drink, don't drink and drive.'"

"There's sometimes a little more societal comfort to talk about products that have been, you know, clearly categorized and delineated as to where they fit in our culture, and with cannabis, that hasn't been the case."

More open conversations about marijuana are vital from a public health standpoint, said Benedikt Fischer, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Even though most secondary school students won't be old enough to legally use it when the legislation changes, there's an obligation to educate them about cannabis, he said, noting about one in three Canadians between 16 and 25 either have used or are using the drug. 

Research suggests using marijuana could be damaging during teens' developmental years, and it's important to teach them how to minimize the risks, Fischer said. 

"If you can delay [using] it from 14 to 17 or 18 or even later, that is likely going to bring quite a bit of health gain." 

The age requirement that comes with legalization paves the way for conveying that message, Steinmann said. 

"It'll give us the ability to say, 'You know what? They're legalizing, regulating this stuff. And by the way, did you notice there's an age limit? Now why might that be?'" he said.

"We would have an opportunity to say, 'Wow, it seems like people who have really studied this and really looked into it are saying that younger people should not be using this.'"


Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from David Cochrane and Ron Charles


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