Cannabis has been a reality in Canadian schools for a long time. CNS photo/Toussaint Kluiters, Reuters

Marijuana still out of bounds for youth after legalization, but still an issue for schools

  • October 10, 2018

All things considered, when the initial haze of marijuana smoke clears on Oct. 17 things are expected to be just as they were the day before in schools around Canada. But that doesn’t mean educators will be complacent.

While cannabis becomes legal on that day for those who have attained the age of majority — 19 in most provinces, 18 in Alberta and Quebec — it will remain an illegal product for everyone else, like it always has been. So for most students, marijuana will remain on the banned list.

“Right now, I don’t see a huge change,” said Vincent Burzotta, superintendent of schools with the Toronto Catholic District School Board in charge of student success/safe schools/international education. 

“In terms of our policies, it’s still illegal.”

However, it also remains an issue schools increasingly have to deal with in terms of both the law and the health of Canadian students, who are among the highest consumers of cannabis in the world. Statistics Canada reported in 2013 that 22 per cent of youth between 15 and 19 years old used marijuana in the previous year.

In terms of discipline, a mild fire was extinguished in Toronto recently when a student at Msgr. Percy Johnson High School was suspected of being under the influence of marijuana and disciplined. The student fought back arguing there was no evidence he was high, though it was alleged he had a marijuana odour on him. Local media picked up on the story, with headlines blaring that the student’s three-day suspension “provides a whiff of what’s ahead” once legalization comes into effect.

Burzotta said the proper outcome was arrived at following an appeal to the board superintendent and the student’s three-day suspension was rescinded. How many of these types of situations arise in the future is unknown, but educators have to learn to adapt to the realities of drugs for many years. 

After all, marijuana in schools is by no means a new phenomenon, though students’ exposure to it — even accidentally — could increase with the change in law.

“Going forward, it’s still illegal under the age of 19, so it’s going to be treated as an illegal substance,” said Burzotta. “We fully expect to continue with the recommended progressive discipline on the whole issue.”

Beyond the legal ramifications, of course, the Catholic Church also has a reminder that, with the exception of use for medicinal purposes, consuming marijuana is a sin. Msgr. Frank Leo, General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said earlier this year that it violates the virtue of temperance and should be avoided.

As it stands now, disciplining students who are under the influence or in possession of marijuana is not set in stone. Selling marijuana at school brings a mandatory suspension and possible expulsion, and being under the influence can lead to suspension. But mitigating factors are taken into account in the disciplinary process. 

Peter Ranson is a teacher at Toronto’s Neil McNeil High School. He said school officials will take a look at the student’s track record before determining what action to take, and will try to work with the student to deal with any issues.

Ranson recalls the case of one Grade 9 student, “a great kid,” who was found to be high in class.

“He started smoking because he couldn’t sleep, and then he was smoking at school, got caught up with the wrong kids,” said the 15-year teacher. “So we nipped it in the bud really quickly. The kid’s gone on to become an assistant captain on the hockey team, runs cross-country. Good kid.”

That’s not to say changes are not coming down the pipeline. 

“Our policies don’t need to change, but they will need tweaking because we have to be very specific with respect to how we deal with marijuana,” said Burzotta.

To that end, Burzotta attended a law symposium at York University in the week leading up to legalization, where board officials were learning some of the issues surrounding legalization and what they need to be careful about.

“Wherever those opportunities exist to learn more about the issue, we’re going to be there,” he said. “So when the communication rollout does take place to our principals and staff, we have updated information.”

Concerns go much farther than just discipline, however. School boards are very worried about the health issues and the welfare of their students, said Stephen Andrews, director of legislative and political affairs with the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees’ Association. The trustees have been in consultation with the Ministry of Education as they develop curriculum materials and resources for the classroom.

Chief among their concerns, Andrews said, is the evidence that shows the negative impacts of marijuana on the developing brain. Memory problems, psychosis and mental issues stemming from its use are real problems that must be faced, he said.

“The schools and the boards will put together communications packages for parents, guardians and students about the harms and risks with cannabis, just like other public health materials,” said Andrews.

The reality is marijuana, once a hidden vice, will now be out in the open. Many are smoking marijuana freely in public. Storefronts are expected to pop up on main streets everywhere and that has trustees worried. They’ve made a number of proposals to government officials to create buffer zones around schools.

“We suggested there be a minimum distance of three kilometres (between pot shops and schools), which might sound a bit fanciful, but we think keeping these entities away from schools makes sense,” he said.

Similarly, OCSTA has proposed a buffer zone preventing the smoking of marijuana within a kilometre of schools. 

Many regulations are still to be determined on both the national and provincial levels. That makes its way down to schools, where staff are still awaiting instruction from above. The hope is that guidelines will be developed by the end of the school year, said Burzotta.

“Once we understand the legal parameters of how we engage, once we understand the best practices, one thing we don’t want to be setting ourselves up for is legal challenges,” he said. “So we want to see what are the best practices, what are the lawyers saying and devise our own policy.”

Teachers like Ranson have not stepped back from dealing with the issue. It’s more open in today’s society than it has been in the past, with students talking frankly with their teachers about the subject. He said he has one insight he shares with students.

“Marijuana alters who you are. Learn to love yourself. You should love yourself without having to alter yourself.”

The facts on cannabis 


Under the Cannabis Act, here is what is allowed for adults starting Oct. 17:

• Possess up to 30 grams of legal dried cannabis or equivalent in non-dried form.

• Share up to 30 grams with other adults.

• Purchase dried or fresh cannabis and cannabis oil from a provincially-licensed retailer, or from a federally-licensed producer.

• Grow up to four cannabis plants per residence for personal use from licensed seed or seedlings.

• Make cannabis products, such as food and drinks, at home provided that organic solvents are not used. The sale of cannabis edible products and concentrates will be authorized no later than Oct. 17, 2019.

• Provinces set own rules for sales and distribution. The age for legal consumption is 19 in all provinces except Alberta and Quebec, where it is 18.


• The illegal distribution, sale or production of cannabis beyond the set limits can result in tickets for small amounts or up to 14 years in jail.

• Taking cannabis across the border can result in up to 14 years in jail.

• Possession over the limit results in tickets or up to five years in jail.


• Canadian 15-year-olds had second highest rate of cannabis use (13 per cent) among 40 countries surveyed by World Health Organization.

• In Ontario high schools, cannabis use ranges from 9.3 per cent in Grade 9 to a high of 36.9 per cent in Grade 12.

• Statistics Canada reports 16 per cent of all Canadians used cannabis in first quarter of 2018, with highest use in northern Canada, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

• Fifteen per cent of students in Grades 7-12 reported being a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who had used cannabis in the previous two hours.

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