Education, Cannabis, and Harm Reduction: How to get it right?

Posted On October 19, 2021

Insite asked ReLeaf Malta: Should cannabis be legalised, how can education about the positive and negative effects of it be implemented in the school curriculum?

If we may rephrase this question, as follows: What type of educational messages and information related to cannabis do we want in our school curriculum? When should these messages be introduced, intensified and stopped? By whom should these be delivered?

Irrespective if a substance becomes decriminalised or not, there is still a portion of the population that will use the substance or a mixture of substances pertaining to the legal and illicit market. This is where education, particularly Harm Reduction, is key to prevent harm and provide the person with the necessary tools to take informed and responsible decisions.

The recently launched Government website about substances promising to be No B** Just Facts, is unfortunately the complete opposite. The content provided gives the person very scant information and tries in a very poor way to re-push the now defunct and unsuccessful approach of Just Say No! to drugs. What is even more insulting is that the website is marred with incorrect information and there is no information related to safer ways of consumption. This is a matter of grave concern and irrespective of any legal status of a substance, this information is exposing users and the general population to unwarranted risks.

The present approach echoes the decades old myth that through criminal deterrence, scaremongering campaigns and dehumanising language labelling cannabis users as ‘nonachievers’ or ‘non responsible parents’, with the aim of addressing prevalence numbers and reducing overall use. This approach does not work and has created innumerable suffering to cannabis consumers picked up by the police, interrogated and arrested for a personal non-violent crime of consuming, cultivating or sharing cannabis.

As has been demonstrated by the experience with alcohol and tobacco, there are numerous variables that influence prevalence use and different consumption levels. It is in fact thanks to holistic education, control on marketing and profit driven campaigns, and a slow but steady denormalization process that contributed to reducing the number of users, especially with the younger generations. 

When it comes to cannabis, and education related to potential risks and benefits, Malta is still in the dark ages. For the benefit of Insite readers, below please find an example extracted from the New Zealand Drug Foundation (incorporated on the Government’s website) giving a more comprehensive overview of immediate positive and potential negative effects, tips how to be safe, how different methods of consumption have different onset and effects, when to get help and how to reduce or stop using cannabis. This approach views education as a two-way process and an enriching experience, therefore one which tries to inform as opposed to scare, and one which respects the readers’ logical and critical thinking skills. Principles of harm reduction are key to ensure young people are provided with comprehensive information.

This brings us to the school curriculum and maybe also beyond formal school years.

Unfortunately, local experts in the field of psychology, social well-being and health, continue to stop at the very basic understanding of what education is and provide only preventive education, at times tinted with scaremongering messages to try and educate the young. Sometimes this also includes the testimony of people with previous substance use problems, in the hope that testimonies of personal miseries (without considering broader psychosocial, economic and political influences) will deter use. These people are frequently presented to young persons as addicts or worse still labelled as ex-junkies. These people’s stories have nothing to do with education and are employed by experts for the sole scope of appealing to emotions instead of logical and critical thinking. In fact, various international institutions have on various occasions warned that similar approaches are not conducive to positive outcomes and produce an insignificant effect on prevalence levels.

In conclusion, one cannot give a full answer to the question what type of education needs to be included in school curriculum. However, as has always been promoted by ReLeaf Malta, principles of harm reduction, especially safe tips for people already using cannabis and potentially out of formal schooling, should be made urgently available and included also at Junior College, MCAST and other post-secondary institutions meeting and hosting young people on a daily basis.

Ultimately, it is only balanced, factual and informative information that transforms positive social change. Irrespective of using a licit, decriminalised or illicit substance, harm reduction principles should be available for all.

For further readings, kindly consult the following links:

https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/

https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/prevention/prevention-standards.html

https://www.academia.edu/40810496/Cannabis_education_in_Malta

https://cssdp.org/uploads/2018/04/Sensible-Cannabis-Education-A-Toolkit-for-Educating-Youth.

Written by Releaf Malta

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