Canada: Toronto Campuses Grapple With Marijuana Policies Ahead Of Legalization

Photo Credit: Justin Tang

This fall, students at Ryerson University will see a new educational campaign incorporated into the usual campus cautions about binge drinking and safe sex.

Responsible marijuana use.

As the government of Canada prepares to legalize the drug this summer, local universities and colleges are confronting a wave of questions around how to deal with it on campus, and the best way to talk to students about what will by next September go from forbidden to an out in the open part of the university experience.

At Ryerson, Allan Macdonald, director, student health and wellness, said a campus-wide campaign will approach marijuana use in a “serious straightforward manner” similar to the education already in place around alcohol.

“It’s not a should or shouldn’t, it’s a here’s the deal kind of thing,” he said.

“There’s a choice here for you. Abstinence is a choice. If you do choose to partake, here’s the harm that happens, here’s how you reduce your harm and prevent it.”

Ryerson also has an internal committee looking at their policies to get ready for the new legislation, said a spokesperson, as does York University. That school is “working on updating current policies and practices so that we are ready to respond once cannabis is legalized,” said spokesperson Janice Walls.

The University of Toronto has put together “a working group that is considering this issue and we want to wait until they finish their work,” said Elizabeth Church, interim director of media relations, in an email.

At George Brown there are “no plans to implement a specific marijuana policy,” wrote spokesperson Rima Kar in an email. “In general, the existing rules apply to employees when it comes to the use of any substance in the workplace.”

Dessy Pavlova, a member of the advocacy group Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy who’s currently studying at Ryerson says universities need to take a “harm reduction” approach because “zero-tolerance hasn’t worked.”

A long-time medicinal marijuana user for nerve pain, she said most students will have already been introduced to the drug long before they get to university or college, but “there is some concern around where it can be smoked and where it can be sold.”

She doubts smoking marijuana will be allowed on campus but doesn’t think that’s the right approach.

“Give students a place to smoke,” she said.

“Because it will happen anyways, and then that allows for a lot more problems in terms of trying to secure where folks do what.”

Pavlova thinks universities and colleges have a role to play in stamping out stigma around marijuana use, and have an opportunity to shape this through rules on campus, like not suspending someone if they are caught smoking, for example.

“What people are choosing to use shouldn’t be the problem, it should be when they need help or when it’s becoming problematic or affecting people around them. There should be resources available to help and right now we don’t have that,” she said.

“We hope with legalization it will just allow for more open conversation overall.”

But even with legalization and students being able to purchase marijuana from provincial LCBO-run stores, universities need to recognize that a black market will probably still exist, said Eric Muellejans, a third-year student in management information systems at Ryerson.

“At the end of the day if the student can get the marijuana faster and cheaper from a black market dealer, they’re more likely to purchase it there,” he said.

On more practical concerns, like where students can smoke, he thinks “common courtesy” should kick in, but “if you’re allowed to smoke a cigarette, you should be allowed to smoke a joint in the same area, or vice-versa.”

Twenty-one-year-old Adam Shpilt, a recent grad who now works in the cannabis industry and is a recreational user, agrees that while most university students will already have been introduced to pot by the time they get to post-secondary, schools owe them an “education session” at least.

For some students, Shpilt said, marijuana can improve creativity, focus and even ease insomnia.

“I think it’s everyone’s choice if they smoke before studying, or smoke before a presentation,” he said.

“If it’s not interfering with other students’ learning experiences, I’m all for it.”