May 23, 2019

Researchers capture the youth voice as they craft harm reduction policy for cannabis use

University of Calgary and University of British Columbia receive federal funding for new collaboration

As the mother of an inquisitive nine-year-old, Rebecca Haines-Saah has already started the conversation about cannabis with her son.

“I have age-appropriate open conversations with my oldest son about why people use cannabis,” says Dr. Haines-Saah, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “I realize my situation is a bit unique. I’m a cannabis researcher and my son hears me being interviewed on the radio and TV, but even if that wasn’t the case, kids hear things, and it’s important they learn what is and is not safe behaviour from someone they trust.”

Haines-Saah is one of three University of Calgary researchers who are receiving federal funding for cannabis research. The Honourable Bill Blair, minister of border security and organized crime reduction, on behalf of the Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, minister of health, announced $24.5 million in funding for cannabis research from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and partners to support research that will explore the potential harms and therapeutic uses of cannabis, and policy evaluation research. Above, Minister Blair meets with students at the University of Calgary to hear their input on policies related to cannabis use.

Haines-Saah will be collaborating with University of British Columbia researcher and assistant professor, Dr. Emily Jenkins, PhD, from the School of Nursing. “Our team has been studying youth cannabis use for over a decade, but this will be our first study post-legalization,” says Jenkins. “We know from our previous research that youth want education grounded in harm reduction principles, which provides opportunities to minimize potential harms across the spectrum of use. This study will contribute to meeting this need.”

Their research focuses on harm reduction and involves working with youth to develop education materials for young people who are most at risk for using cannabis. Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) is a partner on the grant. Samantha Baglot, a neuroscience PhD student at the CSM, is starting a Calgary chapter of the national organization.

Taking part in the announcement were, back row from left: Jon Meddings, Bill Blair, Karim Khan. Front row, from left: Rebecca Haines-Saah, Emily Jenkins, Tanya Mudry, and Samantha Baglot.

The group taking part in the announcement.

Adrian Shellard for the Cumming School of Medicine

  • Above, from left: Jon Meddings, Bill Blair, Karim Khan. Front row, from left: Rebecca Haines-Saah, Emily Jenkins, Tanya Mudry, and Samantha Baglot.

“It is very important to involve the people affected by policy in policy-making,” says Baglot, who is a member of Dr. Matthew Hill’s lab at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM. “Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy has been involved in getting groups together, advocating that young people need a voice at the table. It’s easy to make policy for young people without talking to young people about what these policies will look like for them and how they will be affected, but it may not be as effective a policy as one where youth had input.”

In Canada, 17 per cent of youth in grades seven through 12 say they have used cannabis. About half of all youth have tried cannabis by the time they are 24 years old.

“Even when cannabis was illegal, we had high rates of cannabis use,” says Haines-Saah. “Now that it’s legal we can have open conversations. We couldn’t have this dialogue before.” Haines-Saah adds, as we have learned with time, “just say no” tactics are not effective.

The research team will be out in the community, conducting walk-along interviews with youth to learn about their life, and drug experiences. The team is also planning to bring a group of youth together for a digital storytelling project similar to the video series See the Lives, which featured the stories of parents whose children have died from problematic substance use.

If you are interested in learning more about the UCalgary chapter of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy you can email Samantha Baglot at

Interested in this topic?

  • Watch the webinar to see Rebecca Haines-Saah and Matthew Hill discuss cannabis legalization and its impact on young people.