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Canada Launching $100 Million ‘Nuanced’ Cannabis Education Campaign

Getting through to teens is tough, but Health Canada thinks its subtler approach to cannabis education could work.

Adam Drury

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Canada’s federal cannabis law, which legalizes adult use of cannabis nationwide, sets aside considerable resources for public safety campaigns and law enforcement training programs. Aimed at preventing and reducing anticipated harms like drug-impaired driving and teen drug abuse, these programs are a major part of Canada’s approach to legal weed, and sticking points for legalization skeptics.

But there’s reason to be skeptical of drug education efforts, especially in societies where cannabis use is popular, increasingly mainstream and, like Canada, legally ratified. Recognizing this to be the case, Health Canada, the government organization responsible for cannabis education, is experimenting with a new, “nuanced” strategy targeted especially toward teens and young adults.

Canada Abandons Abstinence-Only Drug Education

Canada’s multi-pronged approach to educating the public about cannabis has taken to billboards, social media, television, and radio. All told, Canada is spending over $100 million over six years on education and awareness campaigns. A large portion of that pot, about $62.5 million, has been directed to on-the-ground community organizations and First Nations groups that want to take the helm of education efforts in their own communities.

Governments throwing money at drug awareness efforts is nothing new. Neither are their typically lackluster results. Usually, “just say no”-type campaigns are the target of playful mockery if not outright derision. Australia’s 2015 “Stoner Sloth” debacle is an excellent case in point.

The well-documented failures of abstinence-only sex education programs are enough to know that telling teens not to smoke weed is a doomed strategy if reducing teen use and abuse is the goal.

That’s why Health Canada is taking a different approach. Instead of telling teens not to consume cannabis, the awareness campaign simply delivers “honest facts” about known and suspected health risks. Professor of Public Health at the University of Waterloo David Hammond described the approach as “more nuanced and subtle.”

Canada’s Cannabis Education Plan Treats Teens Like Adults

Public health officials in Canada understand they can no longer represent cannabis as a serious danger and threat to the public. They know teens won’t buy campaigns that try to scare them away from trying weed. Young people have parents and teachers who are medical cannabis patients, doctors who recommend the drug and they know anyone over 18 can legally possess and use it (starting October 17). It’s part of their world now. Health Canada’s nuanced approach aims to help them navigate that world rather than reject it.

To do so, Health Canada is going where their audience is. Music festivals, fairs, sports events, shopping centers, school campuses—all will feature interactive activities to educate and inform young people.

Health Canada is treating teens like adults, giving them the info they need to make a decision rather than deciding for them. Would a young person get behind the wheel high if they knew about Canada’s tough new impaired driving rules, for example? Maybe less would, and that’s the idea. Even though Hammond acknowledges how hard it is to measure the success of efforts like Health Canada’s, he is confident it will push the conversation in a healthy direction.

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