A person reads a newspaper while holding a marijuana cigarette
(Image: Madeline Cornacchia)

Cannabis was legalized across Canada on October 17, but for university students who partake, the stigma surrounding cannabis did not go up in a puff of smoke. 

A challenge for university publications has been covering cannabis in a way that is informative to their audience, not sensationalized, and contending with attitudes that still exist around cannabis consumption.

“Approaching sources that are students has not changed that much,” says Zak Vescera of The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s independent student-run newspaper. “People are still very afraid to be seen as cannabis users in public.”

Vescera, who has been covering cannabis use since the beginning of the year, says that students are still apprehensive about being known as cannabis consumers even when they’re at rallies and events celebrating legalization. Vescera also adds that cannabis has been an openly consumed in B.C. for a few years, which tempered the impact of the bill signing on October 17. 

Halfway across the country in Guelph, Ontario, the recent legalization of cannabis raised questions for editors at The Ontarion, the foremost being whether the legalization would actually occur.

“We had been waiting because it seemed unclear on whether it was going to be legalized,” says Mirali Almuala, editor-in-chief at The Ontarion, the University of Guelph’s independent student paper.

Almuala had originally planned on beginning coverage of cannabis legalization for a dispensary that was to open near the university, but with the Ontario government only having cannabis for sale online, the store’s opening and accompanying coverage never happened.

Almuala says that The Ontarion’s masthead decided to wait until cannabis legalization went through in October  before they produced their full issue centred around cannabis on university campuses. As with Vescera at UBC, students were still reluctant to go on the record as cannabis consumers.

“People didn’t want to talk about it or say that they used it until everything went through, even if they were legally using it for medicinal reasons,” Almuala says.

Both Vescara and Almuala say that the one major shift in access and conversation has been on the university administration level. There is a greater level of openness from university educators in discussing cannabis, and its practical uses.

“Legalization approaching has allowed us to just be more blunt, please excuse the pun, about it,” Vescera says.

The University of British Columbia is one of the few campuses across the country that currently allow for cannabis consumption in designated areas, whereas the University of Guelph does not yet have a finalized plan for cannabis use. For those at The Ontarion, even more interesting is the limits put on the paper when reporting on cannabis use.

“It’s part of the university’s policy that we’re not allowed to cover things that promote the use of alcohol or smoking cigarettes,” Almuala says. While the current policy doesn’t include the smoking or vaping of cannabis, Almuala says that The Ontarion has decided to err on the side of caution and make sure their reporting doesn’t promote use of the drug.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t promoting the use of cannabis in any way,” says Almuala, adding that while the paper will report on the health impacts of cannabis, that doesn’t mean students should use the drug.

“It will take a long time before cannabis is normalized like alcohol and tobacco are today,” said Vescera, and the preconceptions of the drug still held from before legalization will only slow down its acceptance into mainstream culture. “The stigma is not going to go away overnight,” Vescera says. “It didn’t end with the signing of a bill on the 17th.”

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