Higher education: Universities across Canada are taking drastically different approaches to legal cannabis

After nearly a century of cannabis prohibition, Canada is now the second country worldwide — after Uruguay — to make the drug legal at nationally, meaning that consumers of cannabis at Canadian universities are now in an unprecedented era of freedom.

“I don’t want to overstate it … but I can’t think of any other major widespread change in Canadian law since the Charter,” said Ottawa-based lawyer Joël Dubois.

But for many students, university policies are tighter than expected and the future of cannabis on campus is still hazy at best.

Many campuses have placed total bans on recreational cannabis use on campus, while a few outliers have taken a more liberal approach. Others fall somewhere in between.

Considering post-secondary aged students are perhaps the largest users in the country, it isn’t surprising that university campuses have become a hot spot for cannabis policies. Data from Statistics Canada in 2012 shows that a third of 18- to 24-year-olds reported using cannabis in the past year, higher than any other age group.

A 2017 study by Maclean’s sheds light on the consumption habits of post-secondary students more directly. About 37 per cent of all university students in Canada self-reported ever using cannabis. Students at Quebec’s Bishop’s University came out on top, with 60 per cent reporting having ever used, followed by Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University and Acadia University, which sit at 56 and 53 per cent respectively.

On the opposite side of usage, just 23 per cent of students at the University of Manitoba said they had ever used cannabis, slightly below British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University at 25 per cent.

As a result, universities have looked to a mix of federal, provincial and municipal law for cues on how to approach consumption, storage and growth of the drug within campus boundaries.

The Cannabis Act (also known as Bill C-45) is the federal law that now governs all things cannabis, allowing individuals over the age of 18 to consume cannabis and carry and share up to 30 grams. The Act will also allow Canadians to grow up to four plants at home and prepare edibles.

But, as expected, not all provinces and territories are taking the same approach to legal cannabis. With university policies now in place as well, post-secondary students are faced with navigating an especially complex environment surrounding cannabis use.

Hashing it out

There were just two aspects of legalization that nearly all provinces and territories agreed on: a minimum age for consumption and whether consumers can grow their own cannabis at home.

All provinces and territories have set the legal age at 19, except Alberta, which opted for 18, and Quebec, whose newly elected Coalition Avenir Quebec government plans to increase the age to 21 (the legal age is currently set at 18). All provinces and territories will allow people to grow cannabis at home except for Manitoba and Quebec.

When it comes to legal smoking areas, disagreement between provinces and territories only increases. New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Yukon and Manitoba have limited legal smoking spaces to private properties and residences.

Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories have both followed suit with certain exceptions for public spaces. PEI will allow smoking in designated hotel rooms and campgrounds, while the NWT will allow public smoking when areas are not being used for events.

Ontario, Nova Scotia and Nunavut will allow cannabis to be smoked in areas where tobacco can be smoked, along with private property. Quebec has taken the same approach, excluding university and high school campuses.

Alberta and British Columbia have the loosest provincial restrictions of all, designating only cars, areas frequented by children and tobacco-restricted areas as illegal.

To make things even more complicated, some municipalities have come up with their own rules for cannabis use within city limits, breaking the country up into a jigsaw puzzle of varying and conflicting cannabis laws. As university policies come into effect, campus regulations add an extra layer of consideration to the already complex policy puzzle.

Nipping it in the bud

By far, the most common approach to cannabis legalization among Canadian post-secondaries has been to enact a blanket ban of on-campus use, sale or growth of the substance.

Many prominent schools across the country, including McGill University, the University of Calgary (U of C) and the University of Regina have completely banned cannabis, though their motivations for doing so vary.

At McGill in downtown Montreal, administrators released a set of interim guidelines for pot use that rank among the most restrictive in Canada. Not only will McGill prohibit the smoking and vaping of cannabis on campus like other Canadian schools, but they also explicitly prohibit the use of all other forms of cannabis, including edibles and topical creams.

McGill, the university with the seventh-highest self-reported student cannabis use in Canada, said they took a conservative approach to legalization with plans to recalibrate after stakeholder consultation this fall.

For the time being, students can simply leave campus to light up a legal joint, as Montreal’s bylaws permit cannabis to be smoked wherever cigarettes are allowed. That might soon change, as the newly elected CAQ Quebec government plans to ban smoking pot in public.

“I know, just from broader drug policy, that a prohibition use to any substance use issue doesn’t eradicate the substance use itself — it just pushes it underground.”

— Stephanie Lake, CSSDP co-secretary and graduate student in the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

Beyond Montreal, many campuses banning recreational cannabis consumption have cited restrictive municipal or provincial regulations policies. A similar policy emerged at the University of Calgary, with the school deferring not to the rules set in place by Alberta, but the more stringent bylaws passed by the City of Calgary that ban recreational cannabis use in public spaces.

“The key is we have a municipal bylaw. We are following that municipal bylaw. The bottom line is there is no acceptable place or space on campus to consume recreational cannabis,” Linda Dalgetty, U of C Vice-President Finance and Services, said.

Some schools are still ironing out their policies. The University of Ottawa (U of O) decided on October 15 — just two days before legalization — to permit cannabis consumption in its downtown campus, though staff and faculty are still forbidden from consuming during workdays. This goes against other campus policies in the city, as both Carleton University and Algonquin College have placed total bans on cannabis use.

Other universities are stepping away from smoking on campus altogether. Among them is the University of Regina, which became a smoke-free campus in August and simultaneously prohibited advertising or selling tobacco and cannabis products.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, identified a spike in smoke-free campuses as legalization approaches.

“Universities and colleges are wondering how they’re going to respond to [legalization] in part because they have many underage students on campus and they don’t want students smoking cannabis on campus,” Cunningham said.

The first smoke-free campus in Canada was Halifax’s Dalhousie University in 2003. After McMaster University in Hamilton announced a smoke-free policy in late 2017, other campuses quickly began to follow suit.

“The smoking prevalence around 19- to 24-year-olds in Canada is higher than any other age groups — young adults,” Cunningham said. “That’s all the more important as to why campuses should be smoke-free.”

Members of the advocacy group Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) have advocated for lenient cannabis policies on Canadian campuses, citing data that says that prohibitory measures against drugs often don’t serve their intended purpose.

Though cannabis use is now banned on most campuses across the country, how post-secondaries plan to enforce those bans is unclear.

At the U of C, administrators don’t plan to penalize students caught lighting up. Their policy says that those who report cannabis use in order to seek medical assistance won’t face disciplinary action.

“Ultimately, if people are smoking cannabis, they will be asked to put out the joint because it is not legal on our campus,” Dalgetty said.

McGill’s policy, on the other hand, says that consuming cannabis on campus “could lead to a disciplinary process either under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures or the relevant policy or collective agreement.” It’s unclear, however, how the school would enforce bans on discrete methods of use, like topical creams.

Even among campuses taking more liberal approaches to legalization, like the University of British Columbia (UBC), one guideline is consistent — students won’t be allowed to light up in their on-campus residences, which are typically considered units rented by students from their university. In most cases, including at the U of C, cannabis bans in residences are consistent with existing smoking bans.

“The residences are on campus and as landlords, we’ve chosen to also follow a no cannabis policy for residence,” Dalgetty said. “We already have a no smoking policy for residence and we feel that that’s appropriate.”

However, for some students, bans in residences and on campus, coupled with restrictive provincial or municipal legislation, leave them with no legal means of consuming a soon-to-be legal substance.

Hitting the gym, not the blunt

Collegiate athletics are also making no big moves to allow cannabis in locker rooms or on the field.

U Sports, Canada’s national university sports organization, announced in a press release that there will be no change to their current ban on non-medicinal cannabis use for athletes.

Currently, under U Sports policy, athletes can be suspended and have their names publicized for violating anti-doping rules.

Cannabis will be “one of the many substances that are legal in Canada, but prohibited in sport,” said Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES) President Paul Melia in a statement.

The CCES is a national advocacy organization for drug-free sports that implements the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP) in the Canadian sports community, including university sports.

“It may not be a popular option, but the most effective way for an athlete to avoid a violation for cannabis is to abstain from using it during their athletic career,” he said.

The CADP follows an international list of prohibited substances in sport enforced by the World Anti-Doping Agency that includes THC — the psychoactive part of cannabis that CADP says could give athletes an unfair advantage. As the enforced list stands outside of Canadian jurisdiction, this means that the ban on cannabis still stands regardless of legalization.

Taking the high road

Even as most Canadian schools and collegiate organizations move to ban pot, UBC is taking the high road.

At UBC, students will be able to smoke cannabis anywhere they’re currently allowed to smoke cigarettes. And while they can’t smoke in residences or on residence property, they can keep it in their rooms if it’s clearly labelled.

Unlike other Canadian schools, UBC acknowledges that prohibition simply won’t work — both because it’s impossible to enforce and because its students advocated for an educational, harm-reduced approach to legalization.

“What I think we will see from the bans from universities that want to eliminate cannabis is that they won’t be effective and that they’ll simply force people to use cannabis is such a way that evades the surveillance of the institution,” said Dr. M-J Milloy, a researcher with the BC Centre on Substance Use.

These concerns are especially pronounced at UBC Vancouver as it spans a whopping 1,000 acres. When drafting updates to Policy 15 — UBC’s current smoking policy — it was noted that banning cannabis would likely push users into surrounding neighbourhoods.

“Compared to other universities we have additional complexities when it comes to implementing a full smoking ban,” UBC Legal Counsel Michael Serebriakov said.

“[Users] are going to go somewhere, and it’s likely that they would have gone out to our neighbouring communities and cause some tension there.”

Similar concerns arose at the University of Lethbridge, which is designating five spaces where smoking and vaping will be permitted on campus, much like the policy that will take effect at the UBC Okanagan campus in Kelowna.

“Our campus is not in a downtown core. It’s skirted by thick grasses, long grasses,” said Mark Slomp, executive director of student services at the University of Lethbridge. “We didn’t want to drive students to the fringes of our campus, places where fires could happen.”

Even in Ontario, which had adopted fairly strict laws around cannabis use, there are signs of change. The U of O announced this week it would be reversing an earlier decision to keep campus cannabis-free and “will allow smoking and vaping of cannabis wherever tobacco is permitted by law,” until a permanent policy is adopted in early 2019.

The only exception is that faculty and staff are not permitted to consume cannabis during the workday — restrictions consistent with policies at UBC and other schools with lenient policies.

“The University’s primary goal is to ensure that our approach on smoking and vaping cannabis on campus is reasonable, consistent with public health priorities and in the public interest.” reads a statement from the university.

Beyond the impossibility of enforcing a ban, students consulted by UBC pointed out that campus bans on cannabis are unlikely to be respected by students.

Max Holmes, vice-president academic and university affairs for UBC’s Alma Mater Society, says the student union advocated for a smoking policy that doesn’t go beyond BC’s relatively loose provincial guidelines.

“We’re really making sure that we have a campus that obviously promotes healthy consumption while at the same time making sure that we’re not burdening the campus with too much regulation on this,” Holmes said.

Instead of advocating for a ban, students advocated for a harm-reduction approach to cannabis use. Canada’s Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, a set of principles for improving safe cannabis consumption, are among the sources in the draft policy.

“There’s been so many education efforts or policies that have been made without consulting youth. We end up with these policies that stigmatize a whole group of cannabis consumers.”

— Kira London-Nadeau, master’s student at the University of Montreal and a board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy

It’s one of the few universities taking those steps. Kira London-Nadeau, a master’s student at the University of Montreal and a board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) says most schools are taking a hardline view on cannabis without consulting students.

“There’s been so many education efforts or policies that have been made without consulting youth,” said London-Nadeau. “We end up with these policies that stigmatize a whole group of cannabis consumers.”

Harm-reduction advocates like CSSDP see legalization as a chance to improve universities’ education around substance use, and potentially even as a substitute for more harmful drugs.

“One of the largest threats to our university community ... is alcohol use,” said Milloy. “One thing I think we should all be looking out for in regards to cannabis on campus is: does it reduce the use of alcohol and binge alcohol consumption for members of our campus.”

“There’s still some science to be done on vaping and its potential risks, but it does seem to present a safer profile than taking in the smoke and those carcinogens from smoking cannabis,” said London-Nadeau. Alternative methods of consuming cannabis like vaping could help users use the drug more safely — but universities like McGill and McMaster are banning these as well.

Milloy also points out that a blanket ban on cannabis might impact "vulnerable populations" who use it for therapeutic reasons.

"There’s no doubt that there’s people of the typical university age who are also using it therapeutically— to treat depression or anxiety and also as a substitute for other psychoactive substances." said Milloy.

Most schools are granting medical cannabis accommodations on a student-by-student basis in conjunction with the school’s accessibility services department.

Medical accommodations are protected under the federal Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes regulations passed in 2016, which guarantees reasonable access to cannabis for medical purposes for those authorized for use by their doctor.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that Canadians have a right to use medical cannabis," said Milloy. "I’d like to see our institutions facilitating that right rather than trying to ban it."

UBC isn’t completely alone in taking the high road. The University of Lethbridge also consulted students and concluded an outright ban was unlikely to work, while the University of Victoria has signalled it will likely also designate smoking areas on campus.

But Milloy says most Canadian schools have missed the mark on harm reduction.

“Instead of using legalization as an opportunity to educate and inform university communities about lower-use guidelines we’re trying to ban cannabis entirely,” said Milloy.

Ultimately, campus prohibition might be bound to fail before it starts.

“If people see others just using and breaking those campus policies on campus, that just perpetuates what we’ve seen already with cannabis—which is a lack of respect for policies that aren't effective or realistic,” said London-Nadeau.

Smoked out of residence

A hotspot for potential cannabis use are residences, where universities have to balance their dual roles as educator and landlord — and where enforcing a ban on cannabis is uniquely complicated.

Carleton University in Ottawa is one of many schools banning cannabis use in residence. Students of legal age in Ontario will be allowed to possess a maximum of 30 grams, but they will not be able to consume it in their dorms.

Laura Storey, director of Carleton Housing and Residence Life Services, said in a statement that the school considers residences a public space and workplace, where cannabis use is banned under Ontario provincial law.

If students are found to be keeping cannabis in their dorms, Storey said the department will “follow up and treat each situation on a case-by-case basis.”

Storey also said residence fellows — students hired to be responsible for each residence floor community — were trained on handling situations with cannabis prior to the school year in light of impending legalization. She said the department would provide residence fellows with more information in the weeks leading up to federal legalization.

But, at Carleton, residence fellow training happened before the release of the school’s official cannabis policy, so training on encounters with cannabis was modelled after residence fellow practices in encountering alcohol on residence — such as calling the campus safety department.

“We won’t really know the concrete problems until [cannabis] becomes legal in October.”

— Vandita Kumar, president of the UBC Residence Hall Association

Kyra, a Carleton residence fellow, said the department instructed fellows to not speak to the media after training. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Kyra says residence fellows were told more specific training would happen closer to legalization. However, she said she is unsure about how to enforce rules with somebody who is drunk versus somebody who is high.

“I don’t feel entirely prepared to deal with it, but I feel like the training from other aspects will definitely enable me to look at that situation,” Kyra said.

Jacob Howell, president of the Rideau River Residence Association (RRRA), a campus group representing the interests of Carleton residence students, says students will likely find ways to consume cannabis around campus regardless of a ban.

“I would prefer if there was a way, like us collaborating with the university for students to safely consume that without being worried about getting in trouble with the police or school administration,” he said. “Not doing that just leaves a lot of room to be confused or be upset.”

Howell added that the RRRA will be working on awareness campaigns for residence students to become more informed about the effects of cannabis usage.

The challenge for schools will be to inform students about the new policies. On the west coast, president of the UBC Residence Hall Association, Vandita Kumar, agrees.

“Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of people don’t actually read their residence contracts. So they don’t really know the nitty-gritty details,” she said.

She added that residence community managers will send out an email blast with updates, but “people actually engaging with the content is something different entirely.”

“It’s such a complicated things to actually put into legal form and especially in a residence contract. They don’t know what this policy or the legalization of cannabis is going to look like. I imagine this is like a trial or pilot year for them—that’s the impression I got,” she said. “We won’t really know the concrete problems until it becomes legal in October.”

“I feel like no one has a tangible idea of what this is going to look like.”

— with files from Temur Durrani and Kristy Koehler