McGill should blaze a trail in campus cannabis regulation

Hundreds of Montrealers lined up at the Société québécoise du cannabis’s (SQDC) Ste. Catherine and Peel location on Oct. 17, vying to be among the first Canadians to buy legal marijuana. Only a few blocks away, a few new rules were also taking effect at McGill.

In accordance with provincial law and the school’s smoke-free campus policy, smoking or vaporizing marijuana on-campus is forbidden. Though these rules are only temporary, they will act as  guidelines for McGill’s permanent regulations, which are scheduled for release this fall. In creating permanent rules, McGill should emphasize a harm-reduction approach, and be cautious of the racial discrimination often associated with marijuana regulation.

According to the McGill’s interim guidelines about cannabis use on campus, all forms of cannabis consumption are prohibited on campus and in residence, including smoking, vaping, edibles, and topical creams. Furthermore, selling, distributing, cooking, and growing cannabis is also prohibited. Breaking any of the aforementioned rules may result in disciplinary action.

Other universities in Canada have introduced similarly conservative models. Concordia University, the University of Toronto,  and the University of Ottawa all prohibit consumption on campus. However, some are more permissive: The University of Alberta allows consumption in designated areas and the University of Manitoba prohibits smoking, but does not explicitly ban edibles or other forms of consumption.

While the university has the right to regulate what happens on its campus, it is not the administration’s place to encourage or discourage general cannabis consumption. Instead, groups like Healthy McGill, McGill Student Emergency Response Team (MSERT),  Frosh organizers, and other student groups should update their education initiatives to respond to the change in cannabis’ legal status, and continue empowering students to make their own choice. Healthy McGill already has a harm-reduction mandate regarding recreational drug use and MSERT trains their responders in emergency first aid, which includes cannabis response. As Canada is one of only two countries in the world to legalize cannabis at the federal level, the vast majority of future international students will be unfamiliar with the system’s ins and outs, making the need for objective  education all the more pressing.

Any university regulation of cannabis should comply with the principle of harm reduction. During the peak of the fentanyl crisis, floor fellows were trained to carry and use naloxone, a temporary antidote for  fentanyl overdoses. Instead of focusing on prevention of opioid consumption, floor fellows were equipped to respond to possible crises. McGill’s new guidelines should follow this model.

Moreover, McGill should be mindful that the the criminalization of marijuana has a disproportionate effect on indigenous Canadians and other people of colour. Black and indigenous Canadians are vastly overrepresented in cannabis-related arrests, despite cannabis use being similar across different racial groups. The question of who receives lenience is often a matter of decision makers’ personal judgement, be they security guards or administrative officials overseeing a hearing. In implementing disciplinary procedures, McGill needs to create policies that account for, and actively resist, racialized discrimination.  

Still, McGill has embraced legal marijuana in at least one respect: The Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences put on two workshops on cannabis production in August 2018, with the aim of establishing a professional certificate program by next winter. This is a positive step; it would be a major missed opportunity for the university not to offer instruction in a field with such potential for economic growth. However, the administration must again consider criminalization’s bleak legacy. Many racialized Canadians have been imprisoned for doing what is now considered a legitimate career path. McGill can play a part in redressing historical wrongs by including destigmatization initiatives in their training and by prioritizing opportunities and spaces for people of colour in their policy design and execution.

As one of Canada’s leading academic institutions, McGill has the opportunity to set an example for cannabis regulation in universities across the country. In doing so, it should embody the principles of harm reduction, accessibility, social equity, and education. While cannabis’s legalization is new, its consumption is not. If McGill stands by the methods already practiced by its floor fellows and staff, it will be prepared for what change may come.

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