Below: How to talk about marijuana so students will listen—Steve Lux, Northern Illinois University

This blog headline is also the title of our feature on marijuana (May 2016). For the edit team at Student Health 101, the issue is slightly different: When is marijuana coverage a problem?
Here’s why that’s hard to answer:


SH101 provides health and wellness content to our 500 partner colleges and universities across the US and Canada. These schools are diverse by many measures, including student population, mission and philosophy, and approach to addressing substance use among students. In the US, state law on marijuana is variable and increasingly in conflict with federal law. Although schools can’t allow marijuana use on campus, because it is illegal under federal law, students may be accessing it for medical (as well as recreational) reasons.

In this context, some of our partner schools requested that SH101 address marijuana use. Students want this info too. Responding to our surveys, they had questions like these:

  • Is marijuana safer than alcohol?
  • Does using marijuana affect my learning and grades?
  • Could marijuana use hurt me long-term?
  • Is using marijuana still a big deal legally? How about on campus?

Our May 2016 feature (click to read) answers these questions and more. We developed the piece with extensive input from our Professional Advisory Board, which includes two physicians and 12 campus health educators and related specialists, in addition to interviewing multiple people with expertise on this topic. Our goal was to make the article as meaningful and useful to students as possible.

The result is, we believe, a strong example of harm reduction messaging as it applies to marijuana. “In the many years I have worked with this review board, I believe this is one of the most comprehensive, balanced, and readable articles,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, Associate Vice President for Academic and Professional Success at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas. “Even at a conservative, faith-based university, I would argue this is a critical article for young adults and that we use it as a springboard for campus forums with our health science and faith/ministry faculty.”

How to talk about marijuana so students will listen

SH101’s harm reduction policy was developed with the help of our Professional Advisory Board. Here, Steve Lux, Senior Health Educator at Northern Illinois University and a long-term advisor to SH101, explains why marijuana messaging is so important.

Why is it appropriate for SH101 to cover marijuana?

Lux: “It’s necessary that SH101 has a messaging philosophy that covers all substances, not just the popular ones, not just the illegal ones, not just the ones that are societally unwelcome. Marijuana is important because it is the most used substance after alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals. It is important because of the volatile nature of its standing in our culture and in our legal system.”

Harm reduction messaging acknowledges that some people are using a substance (and their motivations), and provides the best available information so that they can make well-informed decisions. What does that message look like in the context of marijuana?

Lux: “The health risks and issues with this drug are all over the map and are not without controversy. For every study that documents potential for harm, there are others that contradict it. Our best approach is to reinforce several important aspects of marijuana that are undeniable, and encourage students to make their best decisions based on what little we know for sure. For example; ‘Marijuana is a drug, and all drug use carries risks and benefits, ranging from the physical to the emotional and the legal to the issues of community and safety.’”

We know from surveys that students (and the general population) increasingly see marijuana as low-risk. How can SH101 address this topic in a way that works for students, so they don’t tune us out?

Lux: “It is crucial that what we publish is balanced and as free from bias as possible. Students see right through it when the treatment of a controversial topic is one-sided or the article ignores what they consider to be an important aspect of the debate. An anti-marijuana piece will not jive with their experience, nor with the experiences of their peers, or many of their parents if they were to be totally honest.

“Balanced coverage includes the whole range of experiences; the positive, the negative, and the in-between. We can no longer scare our youth into doing the right thing—it didn’t really work back in the ’60s and ’70s, and it doesn’t work today, either.

“Our most effective strategy is to present a positive reality (that most students don’t use and most don’t have problems with substances), promote healthy behaviors, provide accurate and unbiased information, and trust that the vast majority of our students will make safer choices. It is also crucial to provide a competent safety net without fear of recrimination.”

You steered SH101 toward guidelines for marijuana use by Andrew Weil, MD. Based on those guidelines, we developed a printout that students can download and a promotional flier. What makes Dr. Weil’s recommendations so valuable?

Lux: “Andrew Weil’s recommendations for those considering using this drug are very valid and prudent, some of the best writing about marijuana and health that I’ve ever seen. We use them at NIU. While the Weil guidelines may appear too allowing or forgiving of drug use, they resonate with students. It tells it like it is, without bias, without the spin that screams ‘parental!,’ without the hidden agenda. It’s believable.”