Alberta colleges, universities wrestle with issue of cannabis on campus

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Until two months ago, Bow Valley College students and faculty hoping for a quick smoke break could find refuge at outdoor patios and green spaces on campus.

The school had an anti-smoking policy, but decided it was time to shore it up after seeking advice from anti-tobacco groups like Action on Smoking and Health.

In March, the college went completely smoke-free, banning any substance that is smoked or vaped, including pot, in all campus locations.

“With the upcoming legalization of cannabis, it was really just an important opportunity to take a proactive measure,” said Mario Siciliano, the college’s vice-president, external. “Certainly, we’d encourage all institutions to take a good look at this.”

As Canada inches closer toward the cannabis legalization, Alberta post-secondary institutions are pondering how they should deal with use of the substance on campus.

Mount Royal University was initially leaning toward allowing marijuana consumption in designated outdoor areas on campus, but went back to the drawing board after city council’s decision last month to ban cannabis use in public places.

Mark Keller, director of residence services at MRU, said it’s now likely that the university will ban pot use on campus in light of the council vote.

“Probably what will happen is we’ll have to look at not allowing it to be consumed publicly, which is what the city would expect us to do,” he said.

On Monday, Bow Valley College and Burman University in Lacombe, 125 kilometres south of Edmonton, were honoured by Action on Smoking and Health for scoring highest on its ranking of Alberta post-secondary institutions that have written policies to address tobacco and cannabis use on campus.

Both schools have gone smoke-free on campus grounds, which has led to top marks on “report cards” prepared by the anti-tobacco group.

Les Hagen, the group’s executive director, said other institutions should follow the lead set by these two schools.

“There may be a verbal understanding in some of these campuses that smoking is not allowed, but without a clear written policy there’s the potential for abuse and misunderstanding,” Hagen said. “Some institutions are grappling with whether or not they should be allowing any form of cannabis use. What we’d like to see is what these two institutions have done and that is a complete campus-wide prohibition on smoking and vaping. That’s the ideal scenario.”

It’s the 20- to 24-year-old age demographic that has the highest rates of tobacco use in the province, according to Dr. Brent Friesen, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services’ tobacco reduction program.

“Now with the legalization of cannabis coming, this group is also vulnerable (and) at-risk of being targeted for cannabis by the retail cannabis industry,” Friesen said. “Having a policy at the universities that also addresses cannabis is extremely important. We know that cannabis affects the developing brain until mid- to late-20s.”

The University of Calgary has drafted a cannabis policy, currently in the consultation stage, which will establish rules and restrictions related to where and when, if at all, it might be possible to consume it on campus, once legalized.

The policy is guided by federal, provincial and municipal rules and regulations regarding the possession and use of cannabis,” the U of C stated. “Further information will be provided to the campus community and the public regarding the new cannabis policy once it is approved.”

The policy will also aim to “promote harm reduction programs and resources for members of the university community who may use cannabis,” according to the statement.

But Hagen said “widespread restrictions” are needed to ensure smoking of any kind doesn’t become renormalized on campus.

“The larger institutions have some work to do,” he said. “We’re not giving them awards today, of course, but I think this particular report card process, as well as cannabis legalization itself, is providing further incentives for these larger institutions to get after this issue. These campuses all have to address cannabis use. They know it’s coming.

“I think campuses that get ahead of it are going to avoid those problems.”

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