Cannabis Made Clear

A Guide to Non-Judgmental Harm Reduction Messaging for Youth

Providing youth with evidence-based information about the risks of cannabis — with zero judgment — is the best way to help them make healthy, safe choices.

Harm Reduction Messaging for Youth

“Don’t do drugs!” is the message many of today’s adults were given as young people. That abstinence- and fear-based approach does not work for today’s youth, according to Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP).

Abstinence-based messages often rely on the stigmatization of drug use and people who consume drugs, which is judgmental and inaccurate. Youth consume cannabis for many reasons, ranging from social influence to stress relief, and cannabis use doesn’t immediately leap from abstinence to problematic consumption. By removing stigma, you open the door to honest conversations with youth about experiences with cannabis use, both good and bad.

A harm reduction approach to cannabis education helps youth consider the risks associated with cannabis use and gives them options to minimize potential harm. To put this approach into context, wearing a seat belt or a helmet, or even using sunscreen, can also be considered forms of harm reduction.

Access to evidence-backed, non-judgmental information arms youth with practical tips that may help them delay their initial cannabis use, minimize frequency of use, encourage the use of lower doses and, most importantly, reach out with questions and keep the lines of communication open.

Start by helping them understand the risks

On the flip side of abstinence messaging, the characterization of cannabis as “harmless” and “just a plant” is simply not true. Growing evidence suggests the developing brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabis. There is risk of lasting effects, especially with early, regular use (defined as weekly or more frequent cannabis use over a period of months to years) and prolonged consumption.

  • Effects: Cannabis is known for its intoxicating effects — the “high” it produces. The effects of cannabis vary widely and can be stronger for those who haven’t consumed it before. Depending on situational factors and potency, cannabis can produce temporary effects such as relaxation, appetite stimulation, increased creativity and anxiety reduction. In the short term, it can impair concentration, motor skills and short-term memory. Over the long term, cannabis can impact learning, pose the risk of developing cannabis use disorder and increase the risk of developing mental health disorders. Read more about cannabis and your brain.

  • Cannabis Use Disorder: For those that began using cannabis as a teen, one in six are at risk of developing a cannabis use disorder. Dependence among young people is triggered by heavy use (defined as daily or more frequent consumption). Read more about cannabis consumption and cannabis use disorder.

  • Driving: According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, youth understand that cannabis can be less impairing than alcohol, but they may require more education on how cannabis consumption can increase the risk of motor vehicle collisions. Because cannabis is intoxicating, and it’s hard to predict how long its effects will last, youth are encouraged to plan ahead and arrange a ride home after consuming it. In Ontario, the law states there’s zero tolerance for drivers under the age of 21, meaning they cannot have any THC in their blood while driving. Read more about cannabis and driving.

  • Mental health disorders: While more research is needed, it’s believed there is an association between frequent cannabis use and some mental health conditions. Read more about cannabis and mental health.

  • Use with other substances: Avoid mixing cannabis with alcohol, which can lead to unwanted effects (such as dizziness and vomiting) and increased health and safety risks. Regularly mixing cannabis with tobacco increases the risk of both smoking-related lung diseases and cancer, and poses a risk to others by way of secondhand smoke.

Discuss strategies to reduce harm

Get Sensible, CSSDP’s cannabis education toolkit, was created to support adults in having informed conversations with youth. Here are the guide’s 10 principles of cannabis harm reduction.

  1. Start low, go slow: This means starting with the lowest dose possible and waiting until effects are felt before deciding to consume more.

  2. Consider appropriate time and place: Exercising judgment on when and where it is appropriate to use cannabis can help with responsible use. For example, consuming cannabis before school could affect attention span and short-term memory, and therefore would not be appropriate.

  3. Choose less risky products: Avoiding high-potency cannabis products such as cannabis extracts, for example, can help reduce discomfort or potential harm.

  4. Choose safer consumption: While smoking cannabis is the most common method of consumption, it also poses more health risks than other methods. Using a vaporizer or consuming edibles can mitigate some of the risks of smoking. Learn more about different methods of cannabis consumption.

  5. If you do smoke, use safer smoking methods: There’s no need to inhale deeply or hold cannabis smoke in your lungs; it’s a myth that doing so intensifies the effects. The majority of THC in cannabis smoke is absorbed within the first few seconds of intake. Holding it in can increase how much toxic particle matter the body absorbs.

  6. Keep amounts and frequency of use low: There are greater health risks associated with daily consumption, so saving it for weekends or limiting use to a couple days per week should be recommended. Using lower doses also helps toward harm reduction.

  7. Choose plant products over synthetic: Synthetic, lab-made cannabis products such as “spice” or “K2” are associated with severe health issues. Stick to natural cannabis.

  8. Consume only one substance: Mixing cannabis with alcohol or tobacco can heighten impairment (leading to effects such as vomiting and dizziness) and increase the health and safety risks associated with each substance.

  9. Have a safe transportation plan: It is unsafe and illegal to drive after consuming cannabis. Wait at least six hours before getting behind the wheel, and avoid getting in a car with anyone who has recently used cannabis. Use public transit or a taxi, or ask a parent for a ride.

  10. Consider any other risk factors, such as health history: Those who are already vulnerable to anxiety or depression, or have a family history of substance abuse face an increased risk of cannabis-related health issues.

Know the signs of risky or harmful use

Here are four signs of harmful or risky cannabis use to watch for.

  • Consuming regularly at early age: Younger teens (age 13 to 17) may be especially vulnerable to developing problematic use stemming from regular consumption.

  • Consuming during school or work: Cannabis use can impact one’s ability to concentrate, which can have a negative ripple effect on goals such as academic achievement and steady employment.

  • Consuming to cope with negative moods: Also called self-medicating, using cannabis to cope with difficult emotions can be a sign of risky cannabis use. These emotions may be better managed with a range of different interventions, and being conscious and intentional about reasons for cannabis use can be important.

  • Changing friends, ignoring responsibilities, being secretive: Some signs of harmful cannabis use resemble typical teen behaviour, and vice-versa. If something doesn’t seem right, speak to them.

Someone could show one or more of these signs without having a problem with cannabis use; however, the more signs that are present, the greater the risk.

You’re not on your own

There are many resources available for both youth and parents. Download the Sensible Cannabis Education Booklets from CSSDP for friendly advice that resonates with all ages. Learn more about how to talk to youth about cannabis and how to talk to youth about your cannabis consumption.

Back to Cannabis Made Clear     Back to Cannabis and Youth

This content has been assessed for accuracy by unpaid scientific reviewers and subject matter experts.
Learn more about our reviewers and resources.

Talking Pot with Youth: A Cannabis Communication Guide for Youth Allies
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
The Effects of Cannabis Use During Adolescence
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
Addiction to cannabis
Government of Canada
What Canadian Youth Think About Cannabis
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction
Is Cannabis Safe to Use? Facts for youth aged 13 to 17 years
Canadian Public Health Association
Cannabis: What Parents/Guardians and Caregivers Need to Know
The Effects of
Cannabis on the
The Effects of Cannabis on
the Brain
Cannabis and the
Developing Brain
Cannabis and the Developing