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Cannabis and Schools
Principals' Responses


5.1. Schools' Policies for Cannabis

In all of the schools cannabis was forbidden. Most schools had formal drugs policies which outlined the likely course of management for students caught with cannabis. Others included cannabis incidents under their general policy for discipline. One school did not have a formal written policy. The policy was developed by the board, although in many cases it appeared that the principal drew it up and then gave it to the other board members for comment, in which case the principal probably had a strong influence on it.

Schools advised students and their parents of their policies in a number of ways. These included written statements in the school prospectus, through newsletters, by telling them personally when first enrolling, by public announcements at assembly at the beginning of term, and by class announcements. Several principals commented that when an incident occurred they reiterated the school’s policy at a general assembly.

All principals were aware that each cannabis incident had to be treated on its own merits and that the school policy could not state an automatic outcome for all incidents. If suspension was mentioned in the policy this had to be referred to as a ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ outcome. Nevertheless, nine out of the ten schools taking part in this research gave unspecified suspensions in the first instance for all cannabis incidents. This meant that the student was required to attend a board of trustees' hearing and in the meantime was not allowed to attend the school. None of the schools gave specified suspensions for cannabis incidents. The remaining school dealt with the incident without removing the student from the school or involving the board.

5.2. Schools' Policies for Alcohol

Principals from six of the ten schools said their school made no distinction between the management of students caught with cannabis and those caught with alcohol at school, in terms of how the incidents were dealt with in the first instance. These schools tended to be those which took a more lenient approach in their management of students caught with cannabis, although one took a consistently firm line for both drugs. The main reason principals gave for treating both alcohol and cannabis in the same way was that intoxicants and education did not mix.

I guess the position we take is that drugs and school don't mix. Sometimes I might be heard saying 'what you do on the weekends or after school is your business but don't mix school and drugs'.

We're quite clear that intoxicants just do not match with education. The teachers cannot teach intoxicated students.


Four schools treated the incidents differently by treating alcohol incidents more leniently in the first instance, usually by giving warnings or specified suspensions. The reasons given to justify this difference were that cannabis was illegal and therefore involvement with it was a criminal activity and that the effects of cannabis on students’ ability to learn were worse than those for alcohol.

I'm well aware of the fact that alcohol is a bigger problem amongst teenagers at the present time in this area than marijuana is really. And so I think probably the reason for the difference in the policies would be because one is totally illegal and the other, well, it's illegal for the age of kids that we're dealing with, but it's not an illegal substance as such.

And I think anecdotally and in terms of supporting evidence the amotivational effect with cannabis is more serious than alcohol.

A few principals stated that they were very concerned about the acute and chronic effects of cannabis use on students’ learning. The principals were not directly asked about their knowledge of the health effects of cannabis nor how these compared to those for alcohol. However, greater concern about the effects of cannabis was expressed by several, including some who did not differentiate between management of the two substances. Although these concerns mostly related to the effects on learning, some views expressed about cannabis use in general indicated misunderstandings about its harm potential. These included that in general the health effects of cannabis were worse than those for alcohol, that the health effects of cannabis were worse than those for tobacco, and that it caused genetic changes. This may be important given the influence that principals have over their school’s policies.

Almost all of the principals, including many whose schools took as firm a line with alcohol as with cannabis, commented that alcohol was rarely seen in their school, whereas cannabis was. Most readily acknowledged that alcohol was probably a problem amongst youth outside the school setting, particularly in certain parts of Auckland such as the North Shore, but nevertheless they found that within their school it was seldom an issue. One reason offered was that alcohol was more difficult to conceal than cannabis.

Alcohol is a huge general problem and we deal with it within the health program... but we don't actually have a problem of clinking bottles in the corridor. But we do have a problem with marijuana being snuck in.....It is easier for school teachers to detect and control alcohol than it is to detect and control cannabis. You know I'm familiar with alcohol. I can smell it, I can recognise its consequences more readily. And it's a damn sight easier for me to find a hip flask than it is to find a joint. You can just see that the actual nature of the bringing in and detection of alcohol makes it a simpler problem than cannabis.

5.3. Drug Education Programmes

All but one secondary school had drug education taught as part of the health education curriculum. Most of the principals were happy with the manner and extent to which drug education information was taught in their school. However, one commented that, because of competing curriculum demands, the health education component was at times given a lower priority than it might otherwise have had. A few secondary schools invited in outside organisations such as CADS, FADE or Life Education to complement their programmes and felt happy with their contribution. The principal from the school that did not have a programme was keen to include drug education in the syllabus in the near future and was working to that end.

The intermediate schools did not have formal drug education as part of their syllabus and had therefore called in outside agencies. One principal commented that his school had called in FADE following a cannabis incident earlier in the year and was keen to continue to involve them. The principal from the other intermediate commented, as his board chairperson had, on the coincidence of having a first cannabis incident involving those students who had been the first group to receive drug education through DARE the previous year. He stated that he was reluctant to attribute a causal link to these events but was concerned about that possibility. Nevertheless, the school was going to continue to bring in outside organisations every alternate year.

5.4. Schools' Responses when Cannabis Use is Suspected

Principals cannot suspend a student for involvement with cannabis within the school unless there is clear evidence of involvement or the student admits to it. Most principals indicated that they took suspicion of use seriously and made efforts to determine whether the claims were actually true. The particular approach taken depended on the school's general approach to cannabis. For example, principals from those schools which took a hard line and tended to indefinitely suspend or expel students caught with it, had no hesitation in searching for the substance in suspected students’ bags.

If some one says 'so and so' has been smoking dope on the tennis court, I'll go to that kid. I have no compunction in asking them to open their bag and if there's a joint there - that's it. (WS:5)

So it's not a matter of waiting around until the person does something so we can nab them. ....If it's a comment made by some of the other students, like "Joe Bloggs has been dealing in marijuana at lunchtime today", I will then go and pick up Joe Bloggs, bring him in and ask him to empty his bag in front of me. But if he's clean then that's the end of it. I just have a word to him and remind him about what the school's policy is and away he goes.

Two such schools responded to suspicions of student use by instituting surprise searches of a group of students or the school, which were conducted in conjunction with the youth branch of the Police. In both cases no cannabis was found. According to both principals, the feedback received from parents following these incidents indicated that they had approved of this approach. Staff responses were, however, more ambivalent. In addition, one had received a letter from the Youth Law Project outlining the legal position on such strategies. It stated that, except in cases where there was ‘a serious and widespread problem of drug abuse at the school’, such strategies were a breach of students' rights and were illegal.

The other schools managed the situation of suggested involvement with cannabis at school more moderately, by talking with the student about the allegations, reminding them of the school rules about cannabis and, if relevant, offering guidance assistance. In other cases no action was taken from first reports but if further allegations occurred these were then discussed with the student. In two cases principals mentioned that they also informed the student's parent(s).

What we don't try to do is catch him or her... We try and deal with it at a sort of non-authoritarian level first - to try and counsel and change the behaviour there. When formal detection has been made, that's when I come in. Or if there's great suspicion with someone or they need a bit of counselling and still the rumours are going on, that's when I write these letters to the parents saying "this is the information I have, I thought you'd be concerned"... But the counselling level and the attempted behaviour modification takes place at the level of suspicion or unsubstantiated allegations.

Over the years there's been the odd report of smelling things in the toilets or whatever. But it comes and goes..... We were just storing it away and ...then, as it sort of built up and the names and the notes were getting more, that was when we started to think, we've got to start and move. But we didn't knee jerk. We just bided our time. .... We're very aware of how difficult it is to accuse people unless you've got absolute proof .

One principal stated that his staff tried to monitor activities within the school closely to let students know that they were mindful that cannabis might be being used and to get the message across that the risks of getting caught were high.

We try to operate duty systems - supervision systems that create the impression that the risk is too high. The chance of getting caught is high enough to make the risk of smoking dope at school too great, given the likely consequences. So that's the sort of regime I'm trying to maintain and we send out the message ‘it's crazy to smoke dope at school, it's just crazy'.

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