Education officials are looking to take a page out of other jurisdictions’ playbooks before changing how the territory’s health curriculum tackles marijuana ahead of planned legalization next summer.
But they say NWT students are already well-versed in the effects of substance use and abuse under the current school programming, including cannabis.
According to Elaine Stewart, career development co-ordinator at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the use of cannabis is covered well in the current kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum.
Conversations about awareness begin early, so students are able to tackle specifics about health implications by the time they are in Grade 6, she said.
High school students are also required to take a mandatory course that addresses choices around substance use.
While details are murky on how exactly the NWT health and wellness curriculum will change with the legalization of marijuana, Stewart said she does expect it to be altered.
She suggested education around marijuana might be similar to discussions on alcohol, where students are taught about the law as well as how the legal substance affects their bodies, mental health and grades.
“There’s precedent in the discussion of alcohol about how you can have a good conversation about a legal substance and still very mindfully educate students about its impact and supporting wellness choices around those drugs,” she said, adding it’s a model that’s been around for a long time.
The federal government tabled new bills in April to legalize marijuana by July 2018.
New rules would make it acceptable for people over 18 to possess up to 30 grams of legal dried or non-dried cannabis, and to purchase cannabis from a provincially licensed retailer.
People would also be allowed to grow up to four of their own plants, within height limitations.
But access to the substance would be restricted to anyone under 18-years old, and hefty jail time would be imposed on anyone who distributes the substance to youth.
Courteney Lizotte, supervisor of instruction at Yellowknife Education District No. 1, said the school board plans to continue informing students about the consequences of drug use, and give them the information they need to make good choices.
Currently, the board’s Grade 6 to 8 programming covers things like the implications of smoking and marijuana use on mental health and safety. Students also receive presentations from RCMP and other speakers on substance use.
At the Catholic board, students take a broad look at the implications of substance use from elementary to high school years, where they touch on addictions and the health implications of substance abuse, according to John Bowden, assistant superintendent of learning.
But he said there are still too many unknowns about how the territory will implement legalization to know what concrete changes are needed in the curriculum.
“We have no definite way of knowing what it’s going to look like in the territory,” he said. “I think until we’re clear about what direction our government is heading and whether or not our particular students will be impacted at the territorial level, then I think we’ll be in a better position to move forward.”
The provinces and territories are being left with much of the responsibility for implementation, including licensing and distribution and the ability to increase the minimum legal age of access above 18.
But the GNWT has said little about what marijuana legalization will look like in the territory.
In the education department, at least, Stewart said officials are exploring other jurisdictions’ plans to see what they can “adapt or adopt” form their teaching materials for use in NWT schools.
“We will have to first look at what other jurisdictions are developing and then, with the support of our own department of health and social services, work with them to vet those materials,” she said.