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Cannabis on campus: U of T ramps up efforts to educate students, staff and faculty

(photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

With cannabis set to be legalized next week, the University of Toronto is ramping up efforts to educate students, staff and faculty about potential health and safety issues, as well as their responsibilities when it comes to the drug’s use.

Heather Kelly, the Student Life senior director of student success on the downtown Toronto campus, said U of T plans to encourage students – many of whom are of legal age in Ontario – to be responsible, obey the law and develop healthy life habits.

The message is being supported by information campaigns that began during student orientation and will continue to be rolled out over the coming months. To take one recent example: U of T Scarborough earlier this week held an “Understanding Cannabis” information session for students, staff and faculty that covered everything from the distinction between medical and recreational cannabis to Canada’s lower-risk use guidelines. U of T Mississauga, meanwhile, has provided information regarding cannabis use to a range of student life professionals so they are equipped to answer questions. 

“Whether it’s alcohol or cannabis, we have the same approach: It’s about education and training to create a safe, healthy environment for our students,” Kelly said.

“We are talking to students about health and safety issues and where to go to seek help if they need it.”

While cannabis is set to be legalized Canada-wide on Oct. 17, the federal government left the implementation of the new regime up to individual provinces. In the case of Ontario, Bill 36 has been introduced to amend previous legislation that outlined the locations where cannabis can legally be consumed. The bill is currently at the committee stage. In particular, the amendments would allow cannabis to be smoked in public places, subject to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act.

Kelly noted that, as far as U of T is concerned, smoking is prohibited – as it has been for years – inside all buildings, including libraries and athletic facilities. The same goes for residences, where students sign contracts prohibiting certain activities before moving in. That includes smoking and openly possessing substances like alcohol and cannabis in common areas. Residence staff will not receive mail deliveries requiring proof-of-age on behalf of a student, Kelly said.

U of T is also in the process of reviewing its nearly 25-year-old smoking policy to make sure it’s compliant with any proposed updates to the Smoke-Free Ontario rules, Kelly said, and the smoking of cannabis will be included as part of that review.

As for the effort to keep students informed, there are plans to send e-newsletters to students in university or college residences next week to ensure they’re aware of policies relating to cannabis use and possession, according to Melinda Scott, dean of students at University College.

For those students who aren’t living in residence, Scott said the plan is to rely on social media channels and bi-weekly newsletters to distribute similar information.

Communications across the three campuses will also include material related to the responsible use of the drug. 

From an employer perspective, U of T earlier this year put in place its Fitness for Work guideline for faculty and staff. The new guideline strictly prohibits the use of cannabis at work, subject to the legal duty to accommodate, and places a particular emphasis on ensuring employees are fit for “safety-sensitive” jobs in which impairment could result in injury or damage to property. That includes jobs that require operating heavy machinery or working with hazardous materials.

“The University of Toronto is committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace for everyone,” said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity.

“It’s our expectation that all employees will be able to safely and acceptably perform their jobs without impairment stemming from the use, or after-effects, of substances like cannabis, alcohol or medications.”

Students, staff and faculty are encouraged to seek out further information if they have questions about the new cannabis laws, U of T policies or health and safety aspects of cannabis use.

They should also seek out help if they are concerned cannabis use is affecting their own health and safety, or that of someone they know.

“Staff and faculty may want to start with their family physician or contact our Employee and Family Assistance service," said Hannah-Moffat.  

For students, Kelly recommends that they “visit their campus Health & Wellness Centre to discuss their questions.  If cannabis use is interfering with their academic or day-to-day lives, that’s a sign they may need to talk to someone about their limits.”