It’s no secret that many university students smoke weed, including at McGill. With marijuana set to be legal in Canada by the end of the summer, schools no longer need to turn a blind eye. In preparation for the new industry, McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has already scheduled two workshops on medical cannabis for May, and plans to roll out a diploma on cannabis production in 2019.
Whatever the benefit of these workshops or of the burgeoning cannabis industry, these measures open a much-needed explicit, institutional-level conversation about recreational weed use. While weed will be included in the upcoming campus smoking-ban alongside tobacco, physical campus is not the only space in student life. And, federal deadlines providing, next year’s first-year students will be the first to enter university when recreational weed is legal. The McGill community should take this opportunity to frankly discuss best practices for education, including harm and stigma-reduction, and to decide the kind of weed culture that it wants to promote and maintain.
Cannabis use is as common in the McGill community as alcohol consumption. Yet, it hasn’t been matched by the same extensive educational and harm-reduction measures that McGill’s drinking culture has. Safe partying initiatives and resources like Rez Project, Frosh goodie bags, and Healthy McGill fliers focus primarily on alcohol consumption, sometimes with allusions to general safe drug use. Yet, there are no dedicated conversations about the most prevalent drug at McGill, apart from when smoky residence bathrooms set off fire alarms. However safe or culturally acceptable, most drugs on campus are still technically illegal, discouraging the University or student groups from explicitly condoning use of them.
That will no longer be the case for weed. Rather than looking the other way—or encouraging others to do so—McGill and its students must actively shape the norms and culture around cannabis.
As with any substance, the key to both harm and stigma-reduction is access to information. For some young people, especially those coming to McGill from outside of Canada, post-secondary school is their first exposure to recreational substance use. In this case, education is important not because weed is insanely dangerous—generally, it isn’t—but because society lacks an understanding of its potential benefits and harms. Weed has long been used for medicinal and curative purposes. It can act as a vital aid for chronic pain, and can relieve stress and anxiety. It does not present the same—sometimes fatal—harms that alcohol does. At the same time, weed has its own unique, highly-varied side effects, many of which experts don’t fully understand yet: It can affect cognitive functioning, produce user-dependency, and, for some, cause or exacerbate anxiety. Furthermore, impaired driving is a risk regardless of the substance involved.
Come legalization, McGill ought to ensure students have the information necessary to make educated decisions if they want to use substances, and support if they find themselves struggling with dependent use. That doesn’t mean war-on-drugs fear-mongering, nor does it mean passive ignorance of all use—it means an evidence-based, judgment-free approach to providing information, through a range of educational and support channels that are accessible to students. Frosh and residence programming seem like the most obvious places to start, but as not all students participate in Frosh or live in residence; broader-reaching online resources are necessary to ensure that all students are included—during first year and after. Ultimately, it comes down to students to engage with the information available, and act accordingly.
Apart from educating students on cannabis, initiatives like the workshops in May also serve to deflate stigma around its use. Legalization will further validate marijuana as an acceptable drug, but undoing entrenched judgmental attitudes is an ongoing process. A campus with a healthier, more comprehensive discussion around cannabis culture starts with McGill ensuring that relevant information—and safety measures—are available to students. For their part, students ought to do what they always should: Educate themselves and respect each other. Students aren’t merely part of the school’s weed culture; they are its entirety—and it is up to them to create a physically and emotionally safe space around it.