Ontario schools prepare for legalization of recreational cannabis


TORONTO — As the arrival of legal cannabis looms, school boards across Ontario are grappling with how to discuss the drug with underage students barred from consuming it while ensuring rules and policies reflect the province’s new legal and social reality.

Like alcohol, recreational cannabis will be off-limits to those under 19 and banned from school property when it becomes legal on Wednesday, and school boards say they are working to update their codes of conduct and disciplinary processes to reflect the details of provincial law.

Many boards say they are also training staff to deal with questions and issues surrounding cannabis both in and out of the classroom as they await further direction from the government.

“This is new territory for everyone,” said John Yan, spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. “As someone who grew up in the 60s, I didn’t think there would come a day when marijuana would be legalized in this country and it’s a reality that is going to take some adjustment for everyone.”

The Catholic board noted that its staff would be guided on various potential circumstances that could involve cannabis.

“Some of our students may be exposed to smoke, whether vape or anything related to cannabis, and not have consumed,” Yan said. “So we have to train our teachers and school administrators to be able to tell the difference as best they can.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Education has published some resources for educators and parents highlighting the changes contained in the Cannabis Act, which is expected to pass this week. But it has yet to give specific instructions to school authorities on the issue.

What’s more, consultations are currently underway on the health and physical education curriculum, which deals with substance use as well as sexual education. An interim curriculum put in place by the government this summer does not discuss the legalization of cannabis.

“Once legalized, policies and resources on suspension, expulsion, and code of conduct will be updated and posted on the ministry’s website. School boards will be expected to update their policies accordingly,” ministry spokeswoman Heather Irwin said in an email.

“Additional resources for principals/vice principals and educators are being developed for release this fall to help ensure they have the necessary information to support students and keep schools safe. The ministry is also currently consulting on the best way to efficiently support the training needs of staff in school boards and schools.”

At Canada’s largest school board, educators began writing lesson plans over the summer to reflect details of cannabis legislation, said George Kourtis, the health and physical education co-ordination for the Toronto District School Board.

Those plans will touch on topics such as driving under the influence of cannabis, he said, and strive for a non-judgmental tone. And while substance use and abuse is technically in the curriculum for December, teachers are being encouraged to discuss it this week since cannabis will be a “hot topic,” he said.

“It’s going to be very similar to the conversation about alcohol that we’ve been used to having over the last few years but now for the first time we’ve been talking about an illegal substance for many, many years and now it’s becoming a legal substance,” he said.

The board is also working with its guidance counsellors and mental health support staff so that they, too, are equipped to discuss cannabis with students.

“I think the more people we get involved, the better we can not only address the issue, but address issues as they arise because of legalization,” Kourtis said.

Abby Goldstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and Canada research chair in the psychology of emerging adulthood, said legalization opens the door to conversations about cannabis that may have been unlikely in the past.

“There are sort of lessons to be learned as far as what wasn’t done with alcohol, and the opportunity to do this differently here is around having more of a harm reduction perspective,” she said.

“So recognizing that teens and young adults are going to use cannabis and so how can we inform them in a way that makes the harms known to them so that they can make educated and healthy decisions about responsible cannabis use once they do reach the legal age.”

Urmila Persaud, a Grade 11 student in Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto, said her school hasn’t yet broached the issue of legalization or how it may affect school rules and policies.

Persaud, who believes those under 19 shouldn’t use cannabis, said having those conversations in school could help prevent problems down the line.

In the past, she said, students have been given literature on drugs in gym class, which is mandatory in Grade 9.

“I think it would be a lot more effective if they actually talked to us because with the pamphlet someone could easily just throw it away,” she said.

Students aren’t the only ones seeking information on the transition, said Stephen Sliwa, director of education for the Upper Canada District School Board, in the region surrounding Ottawa.

The board has been hosting community information sessions in collaboration with public health officials, partly to address concerns from parents, he said.

“I think parents are looking to us to partner with them about strategies and conversations that they can use at home, that are carry-overs and enhancements to what we’re doing at school,” he said. “They’re looking for insights on how is this playing out once Oct. 17 arrives.”

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press