'We want real information'
Educators and public-health officials face a daunting challenge as marijuana becomes legal: how to get through to teens. Mike Hager reports
The ad shows four pretty young women laughing as their convertible rips past the picturesque Rockies on a warm sunny day, the driver – eyes narrowed slightly – joyfully passing a doobie to her friend.
In the next one, a hip young guy with high-top dreadlocks pinches a smouldering joint (backwards) in one hand and adjusts the car stereo with his other as his date leaves her house and approaches in a red party dress.
Beside both these scenes is a mirror image where a bottle of beer replaces the pot. The reader is hit with the tag line "Spot the difference: Behind the wheel, there isn't one. Driving drunk or high is driving impaired."
When Alberta rolled out its $167,000 campaign against driving stoned last winter, these stylish animated PSAs were roundly condemned on social media as part of an outdated "Just say no!" approach to educating youth that many associated with the so-called War on Drugs, which by most estimations has failed on multiple fronts since launching a half century ago.
"What geniuses decided stereotyping a drug-using black guy picking up a white blond woman was a good idea?" Cris LaBossiere asked on Twitter in a typical response to the ad campaign.
Getting through to teens in a way that does not either stop the conversation dead or kick off a laughing fit is an age-old – but especially important – conundrum as Canada pushes ahead with legalizing recreational pot by next year. The Liberal government has said cutting down on teen use is a core priority, and educators, experts and parents are searching for approaches that give young people the facts about the responsible use of a drug that is already easily accessible while still underscoring the dangers of consuming too much.
Young Canadians consistently rank among the heaviest users of cannabis in the world despite the long-standing prohibition and decades of scare tactics aimed at preventing the use of illicit substances.
"The youth we've spoken to say, 'We want real information and we want evidence we can use, we don't want to just know the worst outcome, and when it comes to cannabis, there is a real gap [in information]," says Rebecca Haines-Saah, an expert on youth substance use from the University of Calgary's school of medicine.
This nuanced approach – based on answering questions from young people – is already proving more effective than campaigns warning "this is your brain on drugs," said Ms. Haines-Saah, who, as a young actor on the cult TV series Degrassi High, once portrayed a nerdy teen who gets paranoid and anxious after smoking pot with her friends.
Ms. Haines-Saah has consulted the Calgary police on the formation of a new framework for substance use education, and Alberta, as part of its ongoing public consultation on legalization, is also looking for better ways to prevent youth from using drugs and alcohol.
The recent Alberta campaign only highlighted the worst-case scenarios for teens who toke and drive, she said.
It would have been more useful, she added, to provide more practical information such as to wait at least three to four hours to get behind the wheel after getting high, or that THC – pot's psychoactive compound – can stay in the bloodstream for several days and still indicate intoxication in police tests.
In Vancouver, many parents are concerned that their children could fall victim to an overdose of opioids, which killed almost a thousand people in the province last year, including a dozen minors.
At a forum for parents and teens on the city's west side last week, the head of the Vancouver Police Department's youth services division told a few dozen people that the three most important things students must understand are: they never know who makes their drugs, no tests can prove a street drug is safe, and that if they overdose there is no guarantee the antidote, naloxone, will save them.
At the Vancouver School Board, Art Steinmann has pioneered a program that gives students these facts but also takes a different approach to preventing substance abuse and reducing the harm of using drugs and alcohol.
For example, ahead of this year's 4/20 celebration – a day some students ditch classes to celebrate stoner culture with tens of thousands at Vancouver's Sunset Beach – a bulletin was sent to educate parents on the origins of the protest and how to have a thoughtful conversation about problematic pot use by asking their kids open-ended questions such as: Does weed being "natural" mean it can't harm you? Why do you think some people choose not to smoke pot?
Students were also told if they were attending the event they should avoid eating cannabis products, which can lead to overdosing; talk instead of toke if they are worried or sad, because cannabis can worsen those feelings; pay attention to their surroundings at all times and don't drive; and to drink water and stay with friends in a safe place until the effects wear off if they are feeling too high.
In Vancouver schools, students most often have problems with alcohol and cannabis, then tobacco and, to a much lesser extent, pills and powders such as Xanax and MDMA, Mr. Steinmann said.
The move towards harm-reduction extends to those who have already consumed: Instead of the traditional suspension of three to five days, Vancouver students caught getting high or drunk at school attend a specialized three-day program.
There, along with a handful of their peers, they start by talking about their goals, emotions and current situations, according to Mr. Steinmann, an addictions professional who started working for the school board just over a decade ago.
"And, of course we discuss with them issues related to substance use, including having them explore whether drug use may be creating any problems in their lives," he said.
Afterwards, staff follow up with the students and their parents. In interviews conducted 10 weeks after participating in the program, 12 per cent of the students who said they had used cannabis at least once a week reported they were using it less, and 34 per cent said they could easily avoid using alcohol and drugs if they wanted, according to a 2009-2013 audit of the program.
Mr. Steinmann and his facilitators also oversee about about a dozen workshops a year for parents in which six to eight students who go to different schools than the one the parents' children attended answer questions from the adults about substance use.
Parents get to chat with teens the same age as their children, but without the reluctance some may have to discuss such controversial topics, Mr. Steinmann said.
"The young people say things like: 'I can't believe adults sat there and listened to me, I've never had an adult listen to me that long in my life, I'm so pleased they're interested in what I have to say,'" Mr. Steinmann said.
Mark, a Grade 12 student who asked to use a pseudonym, said the most common questions he heard from parents at these workshops concerned how best to approach their children about problematic drug use or make them feel more welcome in their home.
He said he started using too much cannabis in the summer before Grade 9, and a trip to Europe the next summer with his family made him realize he was wasting a privileged upbringing – and not living up to his parents' expectations – by ditching class to hang out and smoke weed with his friends. He said he realizes not everyone shares his luck, but a key for any teen to stop using drugs is to having parents communicate their expectations and hopes for their child without judgment.
Guinivere Wilcox, 17, says being exposed as a young child to her father using medical cannabis taught her a fact-based approach to understanding drugs. She recalls her dad Jason politely asking her to go play in another room so he could smoke in their home multiple times a day to blunt the side effects of the anti-retroviral medication he was on for an auto-immune disease.
She recalls that in Grade 5, about a decade ago, she came home from school and called him a criminal after a drug abuse resistance education (DARE ) presentation.
"He was so mad, he called the school almost immediately and then he sat me down and said 'what I do is not a bad thing… I'm not a criminal, I'm not a drug dealer on the street, I'm a medical patient and this is the medicine I need that's kept me alive to raise you,'" she said.
"He's never kept me in the dark. He's always been straight up about his illness and cannabis because he doesn't want to lie to me about it and he doesn't want me to be curious about it."
She says she has always known pot makes people sleepy and hungry, so she has never accepted offers from friends at her downtown Vancouver high school to go get high. She says rather than raising a pothead, her dad, a well-known advocate who crowd-sourced the legal fees for a Federal Court case that enshrined a patient's right to grow cannabis at home, has demystified the drug to the point that it is probably one of the uncoolest things a teenager could do.
"When I sit and watch him cough his head off – that's not what you want to do in front of your friends," she said.
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL: