Photo by Melissa Rolston

How Jenna Valleriani Took Youth-Cannabis Education to the Senate

Growing up in Welland, Ont., half-an-hour from Niagara Falls, Jenna Valleriani saw her fellow teenagers smoke marijuana en route to, say, the premiere of the new Quentin Tarantino movie. Meanwhile, the education about marijuana she was getting at school was at best forgettable and at worst propaganda—that it saps your motivation and intelligence, for example.

“I remember thinking that the majority of the ways people around me were using it was really non-problematic,” she says today. “But all I was hearing about was problematic use.”

Valleriani, now 31, became a vocal member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). In her capacity as a strategic advisor with CSSDP, Valleriani addressed the Senate of Canada last month, speaking about the youth advocacy group’s cannabis “toolkit,” designed to arm teachers and parents with real facts about marijuana and how and why teens use it. The kit was designed through consultations with a group rarely included in such discussions: actual youth.

Now based in Vancouver, Valleriani is a postdoctoral fellow who researches cannabis policy and cannabis as a harm-reduction strategy. She spoke about why fear- and abstinence-driven drug education fails kids and teens and what she has learned by listening to young people’s voices.

I grew up in Welland, Ont. Cannabis was always around. There wasn’t much judgement around the choice to use or not use. There were only small groups who were using chronically or heavily. Other people, it was just occasionally. On the weekend, or before you go to see a movie.

There was a really big disconnect between the way I experienced cannabis use around me and the way it was being portrayed in drug-education programs or the way young people talked about using cannabis. I think that really grounded my experience, to remember how important it is to talk to young people and make sure what we’re saying is actually reflective of how they experience cannabis around them.

I got interested in this space because I had a friend growing up in high school who got into a car accident. He hated all of the drugs that he was on, so he was looking for legal access to cannabis. I became really fascinated by it. He had to talk to this doctor to talk to this doctor to talk to this person. It was very Underground Railroad.

When I started this work I was 24 or 25. As a researcher in this area, there’s always this assumption that if you do drug research then you do drugs. Which is always really funny to me. Because I think in other realms where people research things they don’t necessarily have first-hand experience with, it doesn’t mean their research is of a lesser quality. There was a lot of stigma at the time in doing it because of those kinds of assumptions. Now I think it is more seen as cutting edge.

What CSSDP started trying to do with our toolkit was to put together curriculums without saying, ‘This is the approach that you need to take.’ Saying, these are the elements of a comprehensive cannabis-education program and you can pick and choose what makes sense with where you are.

We weren’t saying here’s a script that you can read in class but rather here are the important elements, here are the key things that are going to help you understand what cannabis is, why young people are telling us they are using and not using. What harm reduction is. Giving them the elements and letting them fill the context.

There’s a lot of literature that tells us that abstinence- and fear-based approaches don’t work. But it’s a little bit harder to figure out what does work because young people are so diverse. What works for urban youth might not work for rural youth. What works for Indigenous young people might not work for middle-class, white, suburban Welland. There are a lot of community consultations that need to happen.