Clearing the Air About Cannabis: To use or not to use? Youth share their perspectives.
Most of our students are under the legal age for cannabis consumption, and the majority of them do not use cannabis. The 22% of Ontario students1 (and 18% of Canadian students2) who do use cannabis have a number of different reasons for doing so. In this Q&A column, we’ll explore some of the reasons that young people have provided about why they use or don’t use cannabis.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction interviewed youth between the ages of 14 and 19, and published the study Canadian Youth Perceptions on Cannabis3 in 2017. They also conducted a new round of data collection in 2020, focusing on gendered perceptions, to be published in a new report4. This blog post draws on both the 2017 and 2020 data.
Recognize the inherent diversity among youth
Before we dive in, it’s important to keep in mind that youth are NOT a homogeneous group. While there may be broad themes in their reasons for using or not using cannabis, we must also recognize that each young person has a unique set of life experiences, stressors, and aspects of their identity that may influence their choices to use or not use cannabis. When talking to students about cannabis, be careful to avoid assumptions and instead focus on facilitating open and non-judgmental conversations.
For support facilitating open conversation, check out our discussion guides: Cannabis Education: Activate the Discussion (elementary & secondary).
Why do some youth choose to use cannabis?
We can think of the reasons for cannabis use as falling into three broad themes3:
Influence from Significant Others
Youth cite many different reasons relating to influence from important people in their lives. The most popular reasons for use include the influence of peers and peer pressure4. Some mention cannabis use as a way to fit in with friends, as something to do with them, or as a way to alleviate social anxiety or boredom. Some see cannabis as an act of rebellion against adults or as a way to establish an identity and be viewed as more fun. Additionally, some talk about the influence of seeing their siblings or parents smoking, or the lack of a present authority figure3.
“I know someone who smoked it because they felt like everyone thought he wasn’t fun when he was sober, because when he got high, he’d be really animated and excited about things.”3 – Focus group participant (2017)
Males and females report mostly similar reasons for cannabis use, and say they wouldn’t expect the reasons to vary by gender. However, males cite a need to “keep up” with other male peers. For example, they may be more likely to finish a bong or take a big hit or deeper inhalation due to peer pressure, putting them at a higher risk for overconsumption4. This type of pressure to partake in competitive cannabis use was not reported by females, and data was not collected from youth of any other gender identities4.
Availability & Acceptability
Pre-legalization, youth considered cannabis to be readily available, and potentially easier to access than alcohol. For example, some claimed that cannabis was commonly available at house parties and social events3.
The availability of cannabis feeds the perception that youth cannabis use is socially acceptable3. Other factors that convey acceptability include the perceived lack of negative consequences for using cannabis3 as well as positive portrayals of cannabis use in the media and online4.
One participant mentioned that while growing up she always knew the ‘older kids’ were using cannabis, but never saw them get in trouble, so when it was offered to her she assumed ‘it was not a big deal’.3
Positive Effects on Body & Mind
Self-medication is another popular reason for use. Specifically, youth talk about using cannabis to escape from stress, anxiety and depression, as well as to help them sleep and manage chronic pain. In addition, some females mention using cannabis for weight loss4.
“I find that [cannabis] works better than an anti-depressant for me, myself. When I am not high I don’t find myself as depressed as when the pills are not working.”3 – Focus group participant (2017)
Other noted positive effects include improved appetite, performance, and mood, and to increase the fun and enjoyment of an activity. Reinforcing these positive effects on the mind and body is young people’s perception that cannabis is the safest, healthiest, and most natural of all drugs3.
Why do some youth choose NOT to use cannabis?
Fear of Consequences
A handful of negative consequences may deter youth from using cannabis. For example, some are concerned about what their parents or friends would think, or are afraid of getting caught3. Some note potential legal trouble, the possibility of getting into “sketchy situations” when trying to obtain cannabis, or the risks of developing an addiction or the cannabis being laced with something dangerous1. Some choose not to use cannabis because they have already experienced negative consequences or witnessed bad experiences happening to others4.
Females in particular report concerns about having a “bad trip” as well as concerns for their safety while impaired, such as the risk of sexual assault.
Negative Effects on Body & Mind
Although youth note positive effects among the reasons to use cannabis, they also recognize negative effects as deterrents. For example, they mention negative effects on the brain, lungs, and heart, as well as feeling tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. They note negative changes in thoughts, behaviours, attitude, and athletic abilities3. Youth are also concerned about the dangers of driving high and the potential for cannabis use to trigger mental illness4.
“I was literally using every day, like eight times, if not more, so when I stopped doing that it kind of brought out mental health problems in me… I got diagnosed with like drug-induced depression and anxiety, and I’d never had anything like that before.”3 – Focus group participant (2017)
Males and females generally agree on the potential harms listed above. However, when probed more specifically, females tend to provide more examples than males4.
Stigmatizing People Who Use Cannabis
Youth understand that people who use cannabis are often stigmatized. They recognize that the more frequently someone uses cannabis, the more stigma is associated to them3.
“I’ve been known as a pothead and druggie and no-good degenerate… just all of that stuff… where I actually, myself, not trying to brag, I’m quite intelligent versus what they have said before.”3 – Focus group participant (2017)
Females are concerned about being labelled with the stereotype of “trashy” if they use cannabis. They also expect to face harsh judgment from their peers if they’re seen as someone who uses cannabis regularly. Males note the risk cannabis us might pose to their future endeavors, such as academic achievement and sports scholarships4.
Opinions about Substance Use
Finally, some youth choose not to use cannabis because it’s against their beliefs or not part of their identity.
“I don’t know. I think some people are just really against that kind of stuff and, like, their morals and beliefs are just… They just don’t believe in that, so they don’t do it, kind of thing.”3 –Focus Group Participant (2017)
How can educators support students to make healthy choices?
Young people have important expertise and should have a voice in the interventions targeted to them. In this section of the blog, we’ll explore youth perceptions on prevention approaches and suggestions for what to do better.
Provide Balanced Evidence-Based Information
Youth acknowledge that cannabis can affect their body and brain health, and they want to learn more about the science behind these effects. They recognize that there may be positive and negative effects, and they want to hear “both sides of the story” through a neutral evidence-based approach3.
They caution against extreme or “preachy” approaches, such as “just say no” or graphic images and videos. They find assemblies or in-class presentations, where they are “talked at” by authority figures, to be ineffective and quickly forgettable. Instead, they want more opportunities to be involved in discussions about cannabis, and they want different information about a variety of relevant topics, such as how cannabis use can affect youth moving into adulthood, how it affects your brain, the risks of impaired driving, the potential for addiction and mental health challenges, and quitting strategies. Furthermore, they suggest that prevention education should start before high school, and continue consistently throughout their education so they won’t forget it3.
It’s also important to remember that youth are doing their own research online, and finding lots of conflicting information. They identify this inconsistent information and messaging as a major barrier to their learning about cannabis. With so much information from different sources, they may “pick and choose” what suits them in the moment or simply discredit everything3. Educators have an opportunity to support students in identifying credible sources and critically appraising online information4.
Looking for credible sources for your own professional learning about non-medical cannabis? Check out the resources below:
- The Effects of Cannabis Use during Adolescence (Report in Short)
- The Effects of Cannabis Use during Adolescence (Module)
- Clearing the Air: Informing conversations about cannabis for child and youth mental health and addictions professionals
Use a Harm Reduction Approach
By providing evidence-based information, we can support youth in making informed decisions about their health. As youth confirmed3, regardless of prevention efforts, there will always be young people who use cannabis. This means that harm reduction strategies are crucial to reach those youth who use cannabis.
In a nutshell, the harm reduction approach “provides people who use substances a choice of how they will minimize harms through non-judgemental and non-coercive strategies in order to enhance skills and knowledge to live safer and healthier lives”5.
To learn more about the harm reduction approach in schools, and related classroom activities, check out this Q&A column.
For a harm reduction resource you can share with your students, check out The Blunt Truth: Useful tips about safer ways to use cannabis (Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines for Youth).
Facilitate Non-judgemental Conversations
The legalization of cannabis has been a catalyst for discussions between young people and their parents4, and we know that conversations are happening in schools as well. Youth report that school counselors are available to discuss cannabis concerns. Yet, they aren’t completely comfortable with this option for fear of being judged, shamed or getting in trouble4. This tells us we still have a lot to learn about facilitating open and non-judgemental conversations with students. Check out the linked resources in this post for support.
This resource provides three exercises to help you get ready for these conversations: Talking Pot with Youth: Cannabis Communication Guide for Youth Allies
For more on this topic, check out the following resources:
- Canadian Youth Perceptions on Cannabis
- Talking Pot with Youth: Cannabis Communication Guide for Youth Allies
- MyCannabisIQ: A Resource for Youth
- The Blunt Truth: Useful tips about safer ways to use cannabis (Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines 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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1Boak, A., Elton-Marshall, T., Mann, R. E., & Hamilton, H. A. (2020). Drug use among Ontario students, 1977-2019: Detailed findings from the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS). Toronto, ON: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
2Government of Canada. (2019). Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canadian-student-tobacco-alcohol-drugs-survey.html
3McKiernan, A. and Fleming K (2017). Canadian youth perceptions on cannabis. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/CCSA-Canadian-Youth-Perceptions-on-Cannabis-Report-2017-en.pdf
4Goodman, A. (in press). Preliminary qualitative data from the Gendered Canadian Youth Perceptions on Cannabis study. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
5Canadian Mental Health Association. (n.d.). Harm Reduction. Retrieved from https://ontario.cmha.ca/harm-reduction/