Canada: University of Alberta cannabis policy leads by example

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Pot-friendly zones for cannabis smoking and vaping will exist on the University of Alberta campus when it becomes legal next Wednesday. The decision was a no-brainer, says the school’s director of enterprise risk management programs.

“Even before Day 1, our students told us it would be absurd to ban it,” said Andrew Leitch, who is also co-chairman of the cannabis working group, which consulted with students, faculty and staff to establish a harm reduction strategy based on risk education rather than prohibition.

“Students are smoking it now, and they’ll smoke it when it’s legal,” said Leitch of next Wednesday’s cannabis legalization date. “This way we can be open about the fact that people are using it, while non-users are impacted as little as possible. There are a lot of unknowns, and there are a lot of risks, so why not help people in the community enter into this with our eyes open, with good information?”

In its report, the cannabis working group acknowledged that recreational cannabis is a public health issue and the university has “an opportunity to help avoid errors of the past associated with the harms of tobacco and alcohol,” aligning its policy with the intent behind legalization, reducing the stigma around cannabis while increasing health and safety.

“It’s a reality that someone under the influence of cannabis will face additional risks in regard to their personal safety,” Leitch said. “People should be aware of the risks and able to make their own decisions. Ultimately though, this is about permitting. We’re not here to promote cannabis.”

Advertising and selling cannabis products is banned on campus, as is the consumption, growing and cooking of cannabis products inside residence buildings. “The university has a really interesting opportunity here. If Edmonton wasn’t so liberal with its cannabis laws we might not have the same level of opportunity,” said Adam Brown, University of Alberta Students’ Union, vice-president external communications.

He noted that several Alberta cities, including Calgary, have opted to prohibit public consumption of cannabis. “Calgary has chosen to be stricter with cannabis legalization but Edmonton is taking a different approach, and it doesn’t make sense to ban cannabis use on campus when it will be available for public consumption in the community.”

As a result of Calgary’s ban on public cannabis consumption, the university there has prohibited consumption anywhere on its campus, with Mount Royal University and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology following suit. The University of Lethbridge has unveiled plans to create five areas on campus where cannabis consumption will be permitted.

The U of A will designate a similar number of pot-friendly zones and, while the exact locations are still being determined, they must comply with Edmonton’s smoking bylaws — at least 10 metres from building entrances, open windows, air intake vents and non-users, 30 metres from sports fields and children’s events or amenities.

“A big one for us would be the Lister Centre,” said Leitch, referring to the university’s largest residence at 87 Avenue and 116 Street, home to approximately 2,200 students.

“Nobody knows how this is going to play out at all, but we do want to make sure that residents on campus don’t have to cross the campus to smoke or put themselves at risk by having to leave campus entirely. But we’d rather start with a small and reasonable number and see which changes need to be implemented over time.”

After legalization takes effect, the cannabis working group plans to accept ongoing feedback and review its policy every six months. “One thing we know is that the smell, people who don’t like it really don’t like it,” Leitch said. “We can’t guarantee that people passing through campus won’t get a whiff of it, but we can expect that people will respect one another.”

The cannabis working group did not recommend any changes to the university’s current tobacco use policies, but will develop a clean air strategy to minimize the potential impact on students, staff and faculty. “Regardless of whether it was going to banned or allowed on campus, it was going to be happening,” Brown said.

“There are some students that would like to see cannabis banned on campus or object to its legalization, but ultimately this policy is about the health and safety of students, communicating throughout the process and making sure that we minimize the impact on anyone who chooses not to consume. Whether students choose to consume it or not, they don’t want their university experience to be hampered by legalization.”

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