Handful of Canadian universities prepare for marijuana on campus

A few institutions in the western part of the country are embarking on a social-educational experiment

October 19, 2018
Marijuana in hand

For most universities across Canada, the nationwide arrival of legalised marijuana is expected to have relatively little effect, at least legally: recreational cannabis use on campus will remain banned.

But for a few institutions, mostly in the country’s west, where local regulations are generally more permissive, a big social-educational experiment is under way.

“I can honestly say there’s nobody who knows exactly how this is going to play out,” said Andrew Leitch, an administrator at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Canada’s national legislature voted in June to legalise marijuana for those aged 18 and older, effective from 17 October. But the federal lawmakers left the provinces and territories to decide the local details. Most set the legal age at 19 to match the drinking age, but they differed on other key elements, including rules affecting university campuses.

The University of Alberta, along with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is one of the rare major Canadian universities planning to treat marijuana much like tobacco: it will permit smoking in limited areas.

That largely reflects their provincial positions: Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are the only provinces that will generally allow marijuana smoking outside private property. Quebec also will allow that, but with a specific exception of college campuses.

Nova Scotia’s leading institution, Dalhousie University in Halifax, is fully smoke-free, and it will extend that prohibition to marijuana. But the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia are setting up designated zones on campus where public pot smoking will be tolerated.

Mr Leitch, who heads an office at Alberta in charge of risk management, said that it was not an easy decision for his institution, and was one whose impact would monitored carefully. But he said that the plan to establish four outside areas – including ones near the university’s largest residential complex, its largest library and its students’ union building – seemed the fairest response to the federal law. Without these sites, “people are going to have no choice but to simply break the laws, and that has to be understood”, he said.

At the same time, the university is joining the province in sponsoring education campaigns aimed at highlighting the risks associated with cannabis use. And university data suggest that most students are too concerned with their studies to spend much time with marijuana anyway, Mr Leitch said. “None of us are really expecting that we’re going to have a large number of people assembling during the day to smoke weed,” he said.

Alberta’s approach will emphasise a level of trust, Mr Leitch said, in the hope that students will uphold that. “It means education and awareness, and it doesn’t mean prohibition,” he said. “It might prove that our institution or the world in general doesn’t have the maturity to handle that, and that we’ll have to prohibit it. But I hope not.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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