Are schools ready for Cannabis Day, 2018?

“Legalizing weed is happening, but it won’t be pretty”.

This rather succinct summation of the impending legalization of marijuana is from a MacLean’s magazine article which appeared online on June 11th by John Geddes, entitled, in a rather foreboding fashion “The Marijuana Nightmare”. The article is one of several that have begun to appear in abundance as the deadline for legalization looms, and provides a rather interesting treatment of some of the key issues around this decision that have yet to be resolved.

One of the most interesting bits of the article, at least as far as this commentator is concerned, centers around the idea that part of the rationale for legalization put forth by the Liberal government was that doing so would actually decrease the ability of young people to access the drug. Indeed, Geddes quotes a line from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has stated “Right now, it is easier to get a joint than a bottle of beer”. The logic is rather simple. If pot is legalized, traditional pot dealers will go out of business. This will mean that the only place to buy pot will be through a regulated supplier, where young people will need to produce proof of age before being allowed to make a purchase.

The reality of the situation is far more daunting. According to Geddes, results from the 2014-15 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey showed that the majority of High School students found it much easier to get their hands on alcohol than marijuana. Further, almost 25% more students indicated they had tried alcohol in the past year than had tried pot. One would think that, if the government’s argument were valid, these statistics would be reversed.

When it comes to the health risks, the research is even more concerning. Although many of us of a certain generational stripe may still view pot as being relatively benign, there is an increasing body of evidence that points to not only the addictive nature of the drug, but of its connection to some pretty serious mental health concerns. In fact, according to the Canadian Center for Substance use and Addiction, people who partake are “…at increased risk for psychosis and psychotic symptoms”. As well, there is some evidence that chronic use can be associated with a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and suicidal behaviour, particularly among young people.

Since the conversation around decriminalization began over a decade ago, pot has benefited from a somewhat wider social acceptance. However, as we approach what has been lovingly called Cannabis Day, 2018, there remains a rather glaring question around the issue that no one seems to want to discuss.

What does all this mean for our schools?

Only the most naive of us would be under the impression that pot is not already in our buildings, and has been since the ’60s. However, there are a number of new factors that are at play here. To begin with, we know that, in many cases, the THC content in modern marijuana, regulated or not, is much higher than it was “back in the day”. We also know a great deal more about the mental health of children, and, more particularly, about how brain development can be impacted by high risk activities such as drinking and taking drugs. Finally, although perhaps the use of tobacco products may be on the decline, mention the word “vaping” to any teacher in the province and you will get an earful. As far as battles in schools, cell phones are starting to take a back seat to this latest way of rebelling. What might be news to some less informed folks is that vapes can be used to smoke pot and produce considerably less of that oh-so-telling odour. Determining which kids are vaping what will prove a tough task indeed come September.

The uninitiated might assume that schools should then simply stop kids from vaping. However, the track record of schools in being able to curtail student behaviour that may be harmful is suspect, particularly when there is not broad public support. (Consider the aforementioned tobacco use and cell phones).

Look, I am no prude. I understand the rebellious teenager as well as any fifty year old teacher can. My concern centers not on either supporting nor condemning the decision to legalize, but rather, the decision to do so without some plan in place as to how schools are going to cope. There is some suggestion that legalization should come with at least an educational initiative around teaching kids about the risks, but to date, I have seen no such plan.

There are, of course, a great many drugs available to kids, and many are much more harmful than marijuana. When one considers the absolute devastation being wrought by the opioid crisis, concerns about pot take a distant back seat. As well, in at least one state, Colorado, reports suggest that marijuana use among teens actually went down after legalization. However, as the count down to Cannabis Day 2018 begins in earnest, I remain concerned.

As with many such social issues, dealing with any potential fallout from legalization will undoubtedly become the purview of the public education system, and, by association, teachers. Now, obviously teachers have been dealing with drugs in school since, well, the 60’s, but one wonders to what extent the system is prepared to deal with pot now that it is legal, and how it is positioned to support teachers’ efforts to curtail usage at a classroom level.

Considering that Canadians can now grow their own marijuana in fairly significant quantities, I know many teachers who are not particularly excited about the impending fall harvest of home-grown. Just as many are thankful that, for 2019 at least, 4/20 falls on a Saturday.

It would seem that Nova Scotia’s brand new educational governance model will have its mettle tested sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see if this particular governmental brainchild is up to the task of addressing a real life, boots on the ground issue, or if, at the end of the day, the changes that were implemented in the name of serving the needs of students were simply just a matter of smoke and mirrors.

With a great deal of emphasis, obviously, on the smoke.

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