Canadian universities tackle legal cannabis with wildly different policies
by Anthony A. Davis
Oct 11, 2018
Cannabis has been a budding part of post-secondary life since at least 1964, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestauthor Ken Kesey and some Stanford University pals formed the Merry Band of Pranksters, gobbled every psychedelic drug they could and toked their way across the U.S. in a Day-Glo bus, permanently injecting drug culture under the skin of campus life.
Ever since the Trudeau government tabled the Cannabis Act on April 13, 2017, setting Canada on the road to legalizing marijuana, universities have wrestled with how to approach campus cannabis policies. Some were still doing so even as the day of reefer reckoning happened on Oct. 17.
Striking a balance between safeguarding student and faculty health and recognizing the right for adults of legal age to use recreational marijuana has been a queasy matter for post-secondary institutions. Students on some campuses are divided on the issue; at other schools, they’re shockingly apathetic. As the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis, “there just is no precedent,” says Kara Thompson, a St. Francis Xavier University psychology professor who has studied the long-term effects of cannabis on youth.
That’s resulted in “a bit of a ‘who is going to go first?’ approach,” Thompson says of the slow pace of cannabis policy development on campuses. In their cautious approach, Canadian universities are—though they have some leeway—mostly proceeding in lockstep with provincial and municipal laws regulating alcohol and tobacco use in public spaces. For example, Edmonton’s bylaws will permit smoking on sidewalks and in some parks; the University of Alberta’s policies are equally liberal.
In Calgary, however, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a former university professor, expressed concern about the negative impact of weed on young prefrontal cortexes, things are more restrictive. Calgary banned the smoking of marijuana in any Calgary public space. “That,” says Adam Brown, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and a fourth-year commerce student at the University of Alberta, “has really affected how Mount Royal and the University of Calgary, which are members of CASA, are designing their cannabis policies.”
The U of A could have chosen to be as restrictive. Though a survey of its own students indicated the majority opposed the smoking of cannabis on campus, the U of A nevertheless will permit the smoking and vaping of cannabis products in a small number of “safe, accessible” locations on campus. (Under the Cannabis Act, Canadian universities have no choice but to provide areas for students to use properly obtained medical cannabis.)
The U of A has also indicated that despite allowing cannabis use in certain areas, it will prohibit growing, cooking, smoking or vaping cannabis in university residences or buildings. And there will be no form of cannabis consumption allowed at university and student group events for at least one year, “to assess liability and other risks.” In formulating its policy, the U of A said it was “aligning itself with the laws and values of the surrounding community.”
But deciding how to reflect community “values” is a hazy business at best. At Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., Wade Tomko figures TRU got it wrong for the 14,000 students on its campus. Though smoking tobacco is allowed in designated areas, and alcohol has long been served on campus at the licensed Campus Activity Centre and certain events, TRU is banning all recreational cannabis use on campus. “I honestly think a lot of students see this ban as an infringement on their rights,” says Tomko, 23, editor-in-chief of the student paper, the Omega. “It doesn’t really make sense to me that TRU is going to ban cannabis while at the same time allowing people to consume cannabis. But honestly, even with the ban, I think a lot of students are just going to ignore it.”
And why wouldn’t they? Long before legalization, at TRU and practically every other Canadian university, pot smokers had little trepidation about lighting up in parking and smoking areas, or other inconspicuous campus crannies. TRU security, says Tomko, never did anything about it then, when it was illegal. That won’t change, regardless of what the campus policy is after Oct. 17, he suggests. “It’s going to be legal. And people are going to want to smoke it, as they have already done for years and years.
Ironically, one TRU student who probably won’t be sneakily smoking recreational weed on campus is a fourth-year journalism student who asked that her real name not be used; she fears she could be banned from travelling to the U.S. for past use of recreational marijuana if identified. “I am 100 per cent addicted to pot,” admits the 24-year-old we’ll call Reba. She was three days into trying to quit recreational pot when she spoke to Maclean’s.
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