The following article was initially presented as a discussion paper at First, Do Less Harm: The Future of Drug Policy in Canada on January 31st, 2017, a panel sponsored by The Canadian Harm Reduction Network and The University of Toronto Centre for Community Partnerships.

First, Do Less Harm: Protecting the Youth

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) is always working to reduce the potential harms of bad policy on young people by including youth voices and input in some of the bigger decisions happening in Canada. Under the guise of “protecting the youth,” we often create policies that do more harm and does little to actively protect young people. When looking at doing less harm, we have to consult the evidence.

Listening to Youth

In September, CSSDP organized a youth roundtable that focused on elements of the legalization task force discussion paper to show how we can do less harm, starting with cannabis.

CSSDP noticed that youth were not being consulted outside of the general public consultation and that stakeholder meetings focused more on organizations that work with youth, rather than youth themselves. To give youth a clear voice on upcoming cannabis legalization, CSSDP, with support from Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, hosted a youth roundtable in September called Youth Speak: Cannabis Policy in the 21st Century, which was attended by Task Force member Catherine Zahn, a representative from the legalization secretariat, MP Vaughan, and MP Erskine-Smith. We reviewed the discussions and produced a report based on feedback from 21 diverse youth voices in Toronto, including peer youth workers who work with at-risk youth, medical cannabis patients, students, and those who work in the illegal and legal cannabis industries. The young people who participated were aged 18-29.

The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey shows that in 2015, self-reported alcohol use amongst grades 7-12 was over 45%, tobacco use was 34%, cannabis was at 22%, and each figure increase with age. The highest use of cannabis was among those between 20-24—with 26% using in the last year. These numbers could be even higher, as they don’t capture the many at-risk or homeless youth who may fall outside of what’s reported in the survey.

Criminalizing Young People

Prohibition has been constructed as a way to protect youth, but it really hasn’t done much to keep young people away from illegal drugs like cannabis; instead they have become one of the most criminalized populations for cannabis-related charges. The criminalization of youth has effects on their future in many ways, such as getting loans, housing, financial aid, and even employment. And we have found that a criminal approach to cannabis possession, production, and distribution causes more harm than the actions themselves. In fact, some youth describe criminal records as, “a gateway to longer prison sentences and the cycle of imprisonment.” Of course, this relates not just to cannabis, but to all drugs.

For example, youth talked about how age restrictions are not about when it’s safe to initiate use, but when we think young people can make reasonable choices. Setting age limits too high means one of our largest cannabis using populations is now outside the regulated system. High rates of use among young people are a key reason why youth felt the age limit should not be too high, and this recommendation was reflected in the Task Force recommendations.

One of the most predominant and recurring themes centered on the criminalization of young people: we must ensure we do not thinly veil restrictions that actually do more harm as “protecting youth.” When it comes to criminalizing youth, the key recommendation focused on youth offences that occur outside the regulated system. Like we see with underage alcohol access, cannabis access will happen outside of the regulated system even if it mirrors the drinking ages. For youth that use cannabis, it should not come with a criminal record. Youth recommended some kind of decriminalized/low penalty system like ticketing or community service, although there were some disagreements on what appropriate alternatives to criminal sanctions there could be. For example, ticketing could further disenfranchise the most vulnerable young people who can’t afford to pay, while community service may take at-risk youth away from jobs and school. The Task Force recommendations also reflected that simple possession of cannabis by youth should not be a criminal offence. Many also noted that although outside the scope of the task force, past non-violent criminal records should be expunged, particularly underscored by youth who worked with other at-risk and homeless youth, where the consequences are magnified.

Cannabis Education

Young people also expressed the need to have access to evidence-based but non-judgemental education about cannabis and other drug use. A good example is iMinds learning resources from BC, which focuses on increasing youth drug literacy. Most of the youth at the roundtable didn’t remember anything but abstinence-only education or anything specific about cannabis use in particular. Youth felt this may be because educators worry about being seen as “pro-drug” should they provide realistic drug education. Cannabis and other drug education needs to include harm reduction, and “protecting the youth” must include protecting those young people who do choose to use drugs. This should include information about things like driving under the influence without stigmatizing use itself. For example, we’ve done a good job changing the public opinion on drinking and driving, without stigmatizing alcohol use itself.

Although cannabis education is a big positive step towards harm reduction in a legalized framework, it is only the first of many topics to cover in the wider conversation on the future of drug use and drug education in Canada.

Education Models and Tool kits

CSSDP has been looking at education models from within Canada and other jurisdictions, such as ‘Cannabis Conversations’ from Washington State, as well at the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse’s Cannabis Education Toolkit. While these are a good starting point, we feel that the lack of inclusion of youth voices in both developing and testing these tool kits is problematic. For example, we found that often these tool kits overlook the nuances of cannabis use and overstate the scientific evidence, which could undermine the effectiveness of prevention efforts among youth, particularly those who are older, as they might have personal experiences that don’t align with these descriptors, resulting in fostering distrust. Some strengths might include the acknowledgment of medical use and pleasure as reasons people use cannabis, as well as different talking points for different age groups. Youth at the roundtable stressed the importance of education being developed with the input of youth and young people, including those who do and those who do not use cannabis, in order to test the curriculum and provide feedback.

Upcoming Cannabis Education and Research Campaign

Moving forward, CSSDP is beginning an education and research campaign that prioritizes youth input. We hope to stress the need for harm reduction in cannabis education and recognize that this is the first step in a much wider conversation around youth education and cannabis access. Access to age-appropriate materials that start in elementary school will be beneficial to youth, but these materials should be developed with the input of young people to really unpack what it means to ‘protect young people’ in this context. For the young people we worked with, this meant keeping the criminalization of youth, which arguably does the most harm, at the forefront of these conversations.

Collaboration Opportunities for Researchers and Educators

We’re seeking collaborators on this cannabis education campaign and hope that we can help develop meaningful tools to give young people access to the education they deserve. If you have questions or are interested in contributing, connect with us.

Below is the video from the First, Do Less Harm panel, moderated by Joe Fiorito and featuring panelists Patricia Erickson, Raffi Balian, Trevor Stratton, Eugene Oscapella, as well as CSSDP representative, Dessy Pavlova.

Dessy Pavlova

Dessy Pavlova


A professional writing and English graduate, aspiring project manager and sensible drug policy advocate, Dessy works for Lift and does research, outreach, writing and web development.
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