Clearing the Air about Cannabis: Key Learnings from our Live Chat with CSSDP
On January 20th 2021, we went live on Facebook for #Cannabis101Chat, an interactive chat about harm reduction in cannabis education. During the event, guest speakers from Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), Hasham Kamran and Kira London-Nadeau, answered your questions about harm reduction in the school setting. In this blog post, we’ll recap the key messages that you need to know in order to make a difference for your students.
*The following interview excerpts have been edited for flow and conciseness.
What is Harm Reduction?
Hasham: It is a practice for people who use drugs in problematic ways, and would benefit from assistance with their use. Harm reduction benefits everyone; it benefits people who use drugs, it benefits their families, and it benefits society as a whole.
Kira: It’s a way to acknowledge that substance use does happen, and to come at the issue from a practice and philosophy of care. Instead of trying to push substance use into the shadows or even criminalize it, we provide folks with the support and care that they need to be as safe as possible. The D.A.R.E program and “Just say no” types of approaches are based on abstinence and telling people what to do. Harm reduction as a philosophy is about respecting people’s agency and choices.
Why talk about harm reduction when it is illegal for school-aged youth to use cannabis?
Hasham: It’s important to acknowledge that cannabis use does happen even before the age of 18, and every youth has a different story and different reasons why they may be experimenting with cannabis. Abstinence-based programs have proven to be ineffective in reducing drug use among youth. “Just say no” does a disservice because youth will experiment and they will use. It is more effective to be supportive and provide education.
Kira: When we try to get young people to “just say no”, we’re not being realistic and we’re creating a void with respect to the education and information that young people get. Our baggage related to our education and experiences with drugs is created during experimentation with substance use, which often happens in high school before the age of legality. If we’re waiting until after folks are legal to have these conversations, young people will seek out their own information and accumulate knowledge through their own and their peers’ experiences. If we refuse to have those conversations, they’re just going to happen without us.
What does harm reduction look like in the school setting?
Kira: Whether we’re thinking of the school setting or other setting, we’re thinking of the same principles of harm reduction. For example, prioritizing support over punishment. This could mean trying to understand the context of somebody’s substance use, and how it relates to their mental health, their social situation, whether they’re having challenges at school or in other areas of their lives. Don’t come at these conversations from a place of pulling people away from substance use. Instead, try to understand the role of cannabis use in the young person’s life.
Hasham: The more punitive actions you take, the more youth will pull away. The more supportive you are, the better service you’re doing for yourself and for the youth. The welcoming environment you create in schools and in classrooms is important. Remember that every youth has a different situation, and they may not have that support at home, for example, based on their culture. In many cultures, youth cannot speak to their parents about cannabis use, and they may have to hide their use because, if their parents found out, it would be a punitive approach. If a student is coming to speak to you, acknowledge that and validate them.
How do you walk the line as a teacher to support but not necessarily promote?
Kira: There have been a lot of discussions around not wanting to normalize substance use. Actually, normalizing substance use – in the sense of making these conversations normal and less stigmatized – is a good thing. What we don’t want to do is trivialize substance use. Talking about substance use is not the same thing as encouraging it.
Talking about it just means that young people have access to more information. In those conversations, your reaction as a teacher should be to listen and be on the lookout for signs that they themselves are having a certain perspective toward their own use, either positive or negative. But if you put your own perception on what a young person is telling you about their experiences, that is likely to make them less keen to talk with you about that subject. Just having open communication about cannabis is more valuable than trying to direct young people in a certain direction.
How can I effectively convey information about long-term risks to students, when they aren’t experiencing these effects first-hand?
Hasham: There may be long-term risks, but short-term there could be benefits to cannabis use in the young person’s life. There could be a reason why they’re thinking about right now, and not 10 to 20 years down the road.
Kira: If a young person isn’t thinking about long-term effects, why is that? Why might someone not be prioritizing their health? If someone is really struggling with feelings of depression, for example, their health and especially their long-term well-being may not be at the front of their mind. If we’re talking to them about, “Your weed use could lead to problems for your lung health in the future,” maybe that person is just trying to get through today. That might not be the conversation that student needs. I would stay away from the long-term discussions and see how we can support young people now.
For more resources to help you support students now, check out the following resources:
- Clearing the Air About Cannabis: Using a harm reduction approach to cannabis education in the classroom and the school setting
- The Blunt Truth: Useful tips about safer ways to use cannabis (Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines for Youth)
- Sensible cannabis education: a toolkit for educating youth
- MyCannabisIQ: A Resource for Youth
To access our full selection of Cannabis Education Resources visit: https://teachingtools.ophea.net/supplements/cannabis-education-resources (Aussi disponible en français: Ressources d’éducation sur le cannabis).
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