In approximately 100 days, Canada will legalize, regulate and restrict access to non-medical cannabis use. This transformation in our drug policy will require an intense educational campaign to inform Canadians, particularly young people, about the effects of cannabis use.

After alcohol, cannabis is one of the most frequently used substances among Canadian youth, with 20.6% of 15–19-year olds reporting past year use in 2015. Although use amongst school-aged youth in Canada has declined steadily over the past decade, Canada is one of the highest-ranking countries in the world for cannabis use.

How do we determine the next steps to educate young people about the effects of cannabis use? A good starting point is to better understand the perceptions that youth have around cannabis, their issues and their concerns. For example, what do they believe are the effects associated with the drug? What influences a young person’s decision to use or abstain?

To answer these questions, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) conducted over twenty focus groups with young people aged 14-19 across Canada. Through this effort, we obtained baseline information about their perceptions on cannabis use and gained feedback on the information needed to effectively guide the conversation.

Our research revealed that young people are confused about the effects of cannabis, especially given all the vast and sometimes conflicting information that is available to them. Further, they are not having open and honest conversations with their families, peers, and trusted adults about cannabis use. They strongly believe that conversations about cannabis should avoid being “preachy” and exaggerated such as “you’ll die if you smoke cannabis.” Young people also reported that they are interested in being involved in peer-to-peer prevention efforts.

By understanding what and how youth think about cannabis use, CCSA was able to identify gaps in current education and awareness efforts and focus on how to have effective conversations about cannabis and inform youth decision-making. We have also been told by stakeholders from across the country – including doctors, nurses, coaches, teachers and many others – that this communication guide is urgently needed to equip them in engaging with young people regarding cannabis in an authentic, safe and judgment free conversation. With cannabis legalization approaching, it is increasingly important we talk to youth and find out what they need to live healthy and happy lives.

So, what’s the plan? This spring, CCSA will be releasing its Cannabis Communication Guide that was created for youth and designed by youth. It draws on CCSA’s made-in-Canada research and provides an evidence-informed approach to effectively communicate with younger Canadians about cannabis and cannabis use. Equipping parents, teachers, health professionals, coaches and young people themselves with a guide to have informed, unbiased and non-judgmental conversations is a vital way to prepare for the legalization of cannabis later this year.

Public awareness and education are critical to ensuring that young Canadians are well informed about the effects of cannabis use. We need to keep in mind that this discussion may not be entirely about preventing cannabis use but rather delaying cannabis use in younger Canadians. The Cannabis Communication Guide is just one of the many ways that CCSA generates the evidence for coordinated action on substance use.

Rita Notarandrea, , M.H.SC., C.H.E. is the CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Contributed to the Sixth Estate – The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sixth Estate.

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