Tips for Talking to Teens about Cannabis: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Approaches

Canada celebrates the fifth anniversary of recreational cannabis legalization. Although rates of youth cannabis use have not significantly changed since legalization, young Canadians still have some of the highest cannabis use rates in the world. As the legal status changes, parents, teachers, and mentors seek to have more comprehensive conversations with teens about cannabis. Here are three tips to keep in mind when starting these conversations.

Avoid Fear-Based Approaches. Drug education in the past took a “scared straight” approach, using fear-based techniques to exaggerate the potential harms of substance use. However, recent research has shown that these approaches are largely ineffective in promoting safe behaviours around recreational substances. Teens are exposed to two sources of information – what they are told and what they see, hear, and experience. When only the harms of cannabis use are conveyed or exaggerated, our message loses credibility when teens see evidence to the contrary. Providing accurate, balanced, evidence-based information is crucial when discussing cannabis use with teens to prevent risky substance use behaviours.

Nonjudgmental Discussion. Teens may avoid discussing substance use with adults due to fear of judgment or punishment, leading them to rely on inaccurate or misinterpreted information sources. Offering a non-judgmental and respectful space for conversation can help ensure teens feel safe coming to adults with their questions or concerns. However, it’s essential to follow through on what has been promised. Encouraging honesty but reacting negatively to disclosures may cause teens to lose trust and prevent them from being honest in future discussions.

Aim to Reduce the Harm. About half of Canadian youth have tried cannabis at least once, so it’s essential to have balanced conversations about it that include safety information. Abstinence-only talks aren’t helpful for those who have tried it and can leave them vulnerable without information on minimizing potential harm. The Sensible Cannabis Education Toolkit for Educating Youth is a helpful resource that summarizes current research and provides a guide to talking with youth. It includes harm-reduction strategies, evidence-based information, and age-appropriate conversations.

The toolkit is available for free download in English, French, Spanish, Punjabi, and Mandarin at

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