Clearing the Air About Cannabis: Using a harm reduction approach to cannabis education in the classroom and the school setting |

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Clearing the Air About Cannabis: Using a harm reduction approach to cannabis education in the classroom and the school setting

Tuesday, June 4, 2019 - 10:02

What do students need to know and be able to do in order to make informed decisions when dealing with situations involving cannabis? In the fifth installment of our “Clearing the Air About Cannabis” series, we tackle how cannabis education can be implemented in the classroom through a harm reduction approach.

Read on to discover how to approach conversations with students, practical ideas on what cannabis education can look like in the classroom and school setting, and resources for further reading.

What lessons have we learned from previous substance use programming?

Abstinence based programs have been found to not be effective in reducing substance use or in improving psychosocial behaviours, such as social skills, self-esteem or resisting peer pressure. Studies with older students have found that those who already smoke tobacco responded negatively and with anger and defiance to antismoking campaigns. To overcome having the opposite effect to the one intended, it is recommended that substance use campaigns provide information and spark discussion without blame, criticism, or judgment. Programs should focus on messaging that stresses the importance of self-efficacy and that students have the power to change; and strive to foster the development of interpersonal skills.

What kinds of programming are needed for cannabis education in schools?

The majority of students do not use cannabis. Like with other substances, some students will use occasionally, while others may develop problems due to its use. It’s important to recognize where students are at and tailor the conversations accordingly. Educational efforts on cannabis should focus across the continuum from health promotion and substance use prevention to harm reduction.

Health promotion and prevention approaches are appropriate for most students and aim to promote well-being, reduce the number of students who will start using cannabis or delay the age when students first try it.

For students who are already using cannabis, harm reduction can be appropriate to decrease the harms and risks associated with cannabis use. Harm reduction strategies are a pragmatic and effective approach for individuals who may be at greater risk of using cannabis. Providing evidence-based information about harms and risks associated with cannabis can help potential users to make informed decisions about trying this drug; and can help those already using, make informed decisions about precautions they can take to minimize risks.
Talking Pot with Youth provides information and guidance on how to approach the topic of cannabis in a knowledge-able, supportive and non-judgmental way for students across the spectrum of use.

How can programs be tailored to the needs of the students?

Student perspectives in the development of harm reduction programming are important to ensure that approaches are relatable, meaningful, and effective. When taking a harm reduction approach, it’s valuable for adult allies to try to take on an inquiry stance, focused around: What do students need to know and be able to do in order to make informed decisions when dealing with situations involving cannabis?

Students need to be informed, but knowledge alone isn’t enough to influence their behaviour. Research findings support the importance of harm reduction approaches that are contextually relevant and responsive to the lived experiences of youth. i

Effective programs involve asking students to apply their knowledge about cannabis to specific contexts. For example, encourage students to consider risk in association with the type, amount, and the frequency of use, and with when, where and with whom the use will take place, the reason for use, or the desired effect of the drug. As with any education program, the focus and strategies should be developmentally appropriate, timely, and relevant. ii

What activities could I use in my classroom?

The use of pairs and/or small groups can help to facilitate participation and engagement. Co-creating guidelines such as no putdowns, no name-calling, and freedom from stigma and freedom to participate can help facilitate engagement across peer groups in your class.

  • Problem-predicting or problem-solving: What might the harms with cannabis use be and who may be affected? Invite students to consider not only the physical and psychological harms (for a list refer to Q&A Column #2: Clearing the Air About Cannabis: Brain Development and Related Harms) but also the emotional, social, and financial harms too.
  • Role modelling or rehearsing : What would that sound like or look like? Student might find it easy to identify solutions but then much harder to put these into action. Through providing students the opportunity to develop responses themselves that they may need when with their friends may be useful to handle peer pressure including. Role-play is useful for a reality check of a situation.
  • Prevalence Statistics Game-Play (e.g., interactive quizzes, guessing games etc.): Include activities that encourage students to examine the reasons why people choose not to use cannabis or chose to use in ways that minimize the risk to themselves and others. When safer choices are perceived to be the norm, it may be easier for students to develop refusal strategies.

To support both planned and/or impromptu conversations with your students, Ophea is working on the development of elementary and secondary discussion guides to support teachers, students, and parents/caregivers in acquiring a deeper understanding of the implications of cannabis, which will help students to draw connections to their own health and well-being, and to make informed decisions when dealing with situations involving cannabis.

For access to a database of resources visit Cannabis Education Resources. You can also sign up for Ophea’s monthly e-newsletter eConnection to read September’s Q&A column and to stay up-to-date with the latest issues, events, and resources – including the upcoming launch of Ophea’s Cannabis Education: Activate the Discussion Elementary and Secondary Discussion Guides! Visit Ophea’s Clearing the Air About Cannabis Q&A Form to submit your questions for September’s Q&A column.

Thank you!
Ophea and the Provincial System Support Program at CAMH


i Jenkins et al., (2017). Developing harm reduction in the context of youth substance use: insights from a multi-site qualitative analysis of young people’s harm minimization strategies. Harm Reduction Journal. Retrieved from:

ii Australian Government. Principles for Drug Education. Retrieved from: