In #SAcdn, Articles

by Sarena Johnson

Jan Driver has become something of an expert on cannabis legalization in a post-secondary context. As an Addiction and Wellness Coordinator, her position at the University of Lethbridge (U of L) is quite unique. Not to be confused with an addictions counsellor, Jan’s primary role is in creating education and training initiatives around mental health and substance use. This has positioned her well to inform the creation of policy and logistical processes around legalization at U of L. This post is a synopsis of a recent conversation with Jan about policy rationale and logistics.  

U of L’s cannabis policy is a product of extensive research by a collaborative team of diverse professionals, starting in December, 2017. The expert policy panel included a member of Alberta Health Services addiction prevention team, faculty from U of L Health Sciences (that specialize in public health policy), an external lawyer with a cannabis related workplace relations portfolio, and a medical marijuana prescribing doctor who is also a director of medical marijuana clinics. The team consulted various additional experts for specific questions and they also held five wider community consultations with faculty, staff and students.

U of L has been taking some criticism in the media based on the cannabis policy. According to Jan’s radar at the time of our conversation in September, Lethbridge was the only university that had publicly posted their cannabis policy online prior to the October 17th legalization date. One article headline about the policy referred to “higher” education, which highlights a general attitude towards cannabis use. There have even been some media confusing U of L with Lethbridge College. To further confuse the point, U of L policies must differ on their different campuses due to city bylaws in Lethbridge versus Calgary. This post aims to clear up any confusion and outline U of L’s realistic stance and transparent policy process on legalization. Jan has found that even with the policy right on the website she’s still getting daily phone calls asking basic questions. U of L wants to set the record straight on their policy and also highlight that the policy outlines that campus members are required to be fit to work and fit to learn. They’re being proactive with their expectations of community members on Oct. 17 – not waiting for mass confusion.

To ban or not to ban?

The policy for U of L’s Lethbridge campus is totally different than that of their Calgary campus since to date the City of Lethbridge has not indicated they would have any additional bylaws other than the AB government regulations. Conversely, the bylaws of the city of Calgary explicitly prohibit all cannabis use, and the university must abide by those regulations. So while U of L’s policy team still held community consultations in Calgary, they looked vastly different. Since the city of Lethbridge doesn’t appear to be adopting a ban like Calgary, they needed to create their own policies there. What they’ve come up with is definitely not set in stone, but it’s a comprehensive initial policy. The team is mindful that If the city did change their bylaws, their policy would need to change to match, but Jan is adamant that the school would remain dedicated to the focus on information and education.

Some community consultation participants wanted an outright campus ban and the expert panel did consider this option. They looked at all the options very carefully. However, the team agreed to work on a basic premise – that the point of legalization is to take cannabis out of the criminal realm. A straight out ban denies this possibility. On the other hand, they didn’t want it to become so accessible that it was everywhere with no education or controls.

U of L currently allows tobacco smoking on campus, but it must be ten meters away from doorways or air intakes. There were folks that wanted to ban all smoking, including tobacco, and that option was also considered. But how would such a ban be enforced? Security guards can write parking tickets but not tickets for criminal offenses. There are no peace officers with that capability on campus. And realistically, would it be fair to think the police would respond and prioritize marijuana smoking if it was legal? Even if they did, would the offender still be there when police arrived? They concluded that method was not a wise use of resources. They won’t be putting a lot of resources into penalizing or enforcement; they figure it’s best to focus on harm reduction and education.

The guiding policy principle was that they didn’t want smoking cannabis to become a penalized underground thing like it has been. They chose a health promotion education and safety approach instead. They also considered the reality that students are ultimately going to make their own decisions.

Where would it be smoked?

Community members will be able to smoke cannabis on campus but not purchase it there. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission is regulating retail sales with distinctive packaging. Any cannabis on campus would need to be in this packaging to demonstrate it was purchased from a retail location, including edibles. The policy also bans making edibles on campus and while the province is allowing growing of up to four cannabis plants per household, residence will not allow any growing.

In a process that was highly responsive to the community, U of L has created 5 “safe zones” on campus. Geared towards students who live in residence, the zones are 10 meters away from any doorway or air intake, similar to the policy for tobacco smoke. However, if the safe zones were too far of a walk they wouldn’t realistically be used so the team factored in human behaviour to identify locations. They didn’t want to push students off campus since safety is paramount – forcing students off campus could also lead to impaired driving. But locating the zones too close could expose unwitting community members to second hand cannabis smoke. They also needed to be mindful that the zones weren’t in areas frequented by children such as day camp or daycare pathways. They even considered general wind direction.

These zones are also away from where people are studying or working since cannabis consumption is legalized for recreational use. They needed to ensure it’s not used recreationally at inappropriate times so that students are fit to learn and staff are fit to work. For example, they have a facility on campus that serves alcohol but they don’t want people drinking during school or work times. But the zones serve medical marijuana users as well. That actually protects their privacy since people won’t know if it’s recreational or medicinal.

Education & Stigma

U of L has created a significant education campaign introducing the policy, potential harms and lower risk guidelines. The timing of the educational campaigns are very important since the student population is just reaching the age of majority at that same time as they’re leaving their homes and peers, all their protective factors, to attend school. The first few weeks of university are crucial. Most students are over the age of 18, the age of legalization in Alberta. However, some begin at age 17 and they want to protect those students and other folks who don’t want to be near it.

In no way is the campaign meant to encourage cannabis consumption, but rather provide information for those students who are already smoking it. U of L isn’t promoting cannabis or negating it’s harmful effects, but rather taking a realistic stance that most students are adults who will do as they choose. The goal is to provide them with quality information so they can make the best informed choices for themselves.

Jan recently attended a Provincial Addiction Prevention Coalition conference. The keynote speaker was tasked with an extensive cannabis research synthesis for the Government of Alberta’s Cannabis Legalization framework process. She reiterated the gaps in research as well as the significant amount of misinformation that members of society have about cannabis, largely a result of it’s history of criminalization, the values, and opinions that people have been raised to believe are true. These include the medical community across the province. Some are willing to discuss it with patients and others dismiss it as a ‘gateway drug’.

The speaker also highlighted that Alberta is the only province that doesn’t regulate physicians needing an ongoing relationship with a client to prescribe medical cannabis. Through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, only certain doctors with a special license may do so and their numbers are low. Demand sees them relegated primarily to working in cannabis clinics. Patients will be referred to these clinics by their regular doctors or can even self refer. Ideally the physician authorized to prescribe cannabis would screen for history of mental illness, propensity towards addiction, and that a patient has tried other therapies without success before prescribing.

This general attitude reflected in the medical community speaks to our own deeply ingrained beliefs. Many of us absorbed marketing messages such as “reefer madness” or “this is your brain on drugs”. In her community consultations, Jan found that the the older population tended to have preconceived negative opinions when they first began the conversations. In the initial stages of the consultations, they were less willing to consider the other side of it. Students, however, were very easy to engage in conversation and were more open to the distinction between cannabis use and deviant behaviour.

Harm Reduction

U of L is also part of Post-secondary Education Partnership – Alcohol Harms or PEP-AH, an organization of Canadian post-secondary institutions working to share reducing alcohol related harms on campuses. PEP-AH works with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. They have some quality cannabis research and resources including cannabis communications guide on their website for anyone who works with youth. PEP-AH uses a Framework to Address High Risk Drinking and Alcohol Harms Reduction on Canadian Campuses, which features a wide selection of individual,environmental and systemic approaches to create a holistic set of harm reduction initiatives on campus. This is part of U of L’s commitment to a health promotion environment on campus that supports community members to make informed and responsible choices that respect everyone.

This is definitely an interesting time to be an Addiction and Wellness Coordinator. Jan’s position receives funding from the Alberta Mental Health Strategy with the goal to increase mental health services on campus. But her mandate is not one on one counselling, as is often assumed, but rather education, screening and referrals with primarily focus on awareness, prevention and harm reduction. This year’s orientation programming saw Jan facilitate several cannabis-specific info sessions, whereas she had previously focused more on binge drinking harm reduction. She currently holds two sessions a week, open to the entire community, and still gets requests for more. Before legalization she was focused more on mental health. Right now it’s more on addiction, so her position is definitely responsive to student trends and needs.

Despite community members holding vastly different opinions on the cannabis issue, the Lethbridge policy was approved by executive council in June in anticipation of the original July legalization date. For Jan’s team, this was a huge accomplishment that resulted from numerous contributors engaging in dialogue with open minds. They’re all learning, and Jan anticipates they will look back in a year and identify what they could have done differently. However, the team is confident they did everything possible to ensure a health promotion environmental approach on campus. I think they should be applauded for their efforts and also their transparency, which benefits the entire #SAcdn community.

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