Recreational cannabis is legal for adults 19 and over in British Columbia. Both federal and provincial legislation regulate the consumption and distribution. Several school districts have already provided parents with letters or information on their websites regarding the use of cannabis. As the letters note, it is still illegal for youth under 19 to purchase, sell or consume cannabis. Cannabis remains illegal in schools and on school property, subject to certain exceptions set out in legislation.

The federal legislation includes provisions for protecting youth, a stated priority of the federal government. The federal legislation includes new criminal offenses with maximum penalties of 14 years in jail for:

  • Giving or selling recreational cannabis to youth
  • Using youth to commit a cannabis-related offence

There are also restrictions on advertising. Specifically, the Cannabis Act discourages youth cannabis use by prohibiting:

  • Products that are appealing to youth
  • Packaging or labeling cannabis in a way that makes it appealing to youth
  • Selling cannabis through self-service displays or vending machines
  • Promoting cannabis, except in narrow circumstances where young people could not see the promotion

Penalties for violating these prohibitions include a fine of up to $5 million or three years in jail.

Beyond the use of cannabis by youth, there are specific issues raised by the legislation when it comes to school property and liability. BCSTA distributed a Legal Bulletin about the provincial cannabis legislation to its membership, which can be found on the HUB

Cannabis Use

The legalization of cannabis is already resulting in more research and more open discussion. It presents an excellent opportunity to raise the issue of cannabis use with youth and having those conversations is extremely important. Research suggests that youth who start using drugs early and frequently are at much greater risk of problem drug use. Experts recommend that youth not use cannabis, or delay using until age 20 or older. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) reports:

“Adolescents are particularly at risk for cannabis related harm since their brains are undergoing rapid and extensive development. Research tells us that chronic cannabis use is associated with memory, thinking and attention difficulties, particularly among those who began using cannabis in early adolescence. Chronic use might also increase the risk of psychosis, depression and anxiety, in addition to respiratory conditions and possibly lung cancer.”

The CCSA further reports that according to a UNICEF study, Canadian youth are among the highest users of cannabis in developed countries.Many youth – and adults – have misconceptions about cannabis. Many do not recognize that it is addictive. Some think it isn’t a drug. Many do not know about the specific risks for youth. Many have a positive view of cannabis use. Some don’t know use of cannabis causes impaired driving. The first step in a conversation about cannabis use is to provide youth with knowledge about cannabis. However, experts know that the key to helping youth navigate a drug-filled world is about creating a culture of resiliency and capacity so youth have options, knowledge, skills, confidence, self-awareness and the support to exercise them.

School Districts at Work

Art Steinmann heads up a program in the Vancouver School District called Supporting And Connecting Youth (SACY) – Substance Use Health Promotion Initiative. A partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, the program employs a rich set of activities and resources for working with youth, their parents and schools. According to their website, at the heart of the program is the following belief:

“That young people that feel connected to their schools, who have supportive family, and have adult allies and mentors are stronger, healthier and better able to live up to their full potential.”

The SACY team uses a comprehensive approach to deliver coordinated prevention and early intervention strategies that emphasize relationships, connectedness, positive youth development, and social and emotional learning. When talking about youth and cannabis use, it is possible to get caught up in the drug and its effects, but Art Steinmann adds additional context.

“Effective programs focus on people. The more we can do to support youth to have a sense of meaning and purpose, of autonomy, belonging, and competence – a sense of ‘can do’ – the greater the chances that youth will make good decisions in their life.”

And, that includes using or not using cannabis.

SACY utilizes a number of unique activities including “Capacity Cafes” (where youth voices educate adults), community service learning opportunities, parent engagement and specific activities that involve multi-cultural communities. The program’s primary streams of activities focus on Youth Prevention and Engagement, Parent Engagement, Curriculum, Teacher Training, and STEP – a three-day off-site program of education, visioning and skill-building. The streams are interrelated, overlapping and connected by design to provide a wrap-around, comprehensive approach.

After many years in operation, the program can boast great success. The many resources the SACY team has developed, along with contact information, are easily accessible on their website.

The Vernon School District also has a program for substance use. According to Doug Rogers of School District 22 (Vernon):

“We have a simple philosophy with respect to drug and alcohol issues. We ask, what would I do if my child had a drug problem? This uncomplicated philosophy shapes our programs and actions.”

The program is based on four pillars: prevention, intervention, enforcement and treatment. Public meetings, the involvement of parents and community partners — including the Interior Health Authority and North Okanagan Youth and Family Services — are central to the program. And, it appears the policy and process are working. The district reports that referrals to administrators have significantly declined and students are self-referring at higher numbers each year. Students who would have dropped out or been ‘kicked out’ of school in the past are remaining in school, graduating, living healthier lives and contributing to society (see an article and contact information on the work here).

A central feature of the work in Vernon is the use of a program developed at the University of Montreal and used world-wide called Preventure. The program is premised on the understanding that there are certain traits in some youth that make them more at-risk for drug initiation and problematic use.

“We want to work upstream on this issue and not wait until youth need treatment for problematic drug use,” says Rogers.

The intervention identifies youth in grade 8 who may be more likely to develop habits of drug use. The students are provided an intervention that builds on their strengths and helps them understand themselves. In cooperation with UBC Okanagan and Dr. Marvin Krank, research has been conducted in the district and the results are excellent. There is a 40% reduction in use of cannabis among the youth who participated in the intervention. And, not only the students who are involved in the intervention benefit. Because they are often influential with their peers, the research shows a ‘herd effect’ where working with the identified students reduces the risk of drug use among all the youth in the school.

Parents Have a Critical Role

In addition to the work done in schools, parents have a critical role in talking to youth about cannabis use. Experts advise that having some facts about cannabis will help parents in their conversations with youth. They suggest a good way to start a conversation is to allow teens to generate ideas about commonly held beliefs about cannabis. Listening and engaging in dialogue is important. And, as noted earlier, supporting youth to build resiliency and become confident, autonomous individuals is key.

The resources below may prove useful for parents.