PSHE: We need to talk about cannabis

Written by: Helena Conibear | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Use of cannabis among teenagers is on the rise and charity the Alcohol Education Trust has responded with new workshops for schools. CEO Helena Conibear offers some tips on tackling cannabis education

During the 12 years that the Alcohol Education Trust has been supporting schools to ensure children make safer choices around alcohol, all the trends of use have been declining for alcohol, drugs and smoking.

Sadly there is now clear evidence among 11 to 15-year-olds and 16 to 24-year-olds that use of cannabis and cannabis derivatives (such as THC-laced products and edibles) is rising again – and quite markedly so.

The latest Home Office figures cited at the 10 Year Drug Strategy Conference held in May, suggest that 20% of young people are using cannabis regularly and that it is the recreational drug of choice.

We do not have accurate figures for any changes in trends during lockdown, but we feel it is unlikely that level of use has declined.

Furthermore, in a survey of more than 4,100 sixth-formers conducted by the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs (DSM) Foundation, teenagers cite cannabis as being more available to them than cigarettes. Hence it is not surprising that we are increasingly asked to cover cannabis or alcohol and cannabis early intervention/prevention in staff training, parent talks, and sixth form workshops.

It is a complex subject to cover, both in terms of the number of forms it takes (derived from the plant and synthetic forms) as well as attitudes towards cannabis. It is difficult for young people to comprehend that a gummy bear or chocolate can be laced with high levels of THC and have a greater psychotic effect than straight cannabis and that we can have no idea what the ingredients are in anything purchased as the market is totally unregulated.

There is a widespread opinion that cannabis is benign, and some believe it to be safer to use than alcohol. This is not surprising as CBD oils and products are legal and seen as pain-relieving or helping with anxiety and depression. Also, cannabis is legalised in several countries including parts of the US and in Canada.

At the Alcohol Education Trust, we began by covering the use of alcohol and cannabis together for key stage 4, as both are depressants and so have a double effect – slowing reactions and impairing coordination.

But we have now developed an in-depth workshop focusing solely on cannabis, in which ask teenagers to think about the effects of use and facilitate discussion and working in small groups.

This includes discussing the motives of pushers and dealers and the impact on young people and the community (including gangs, grooming and county lines). We also discuss changing perceived norms (remember, 80% of young people are not using cannabis), the law, why hospital admissions linked to cannabis and psychosis are increasing, and alternative ways of coping with anxiety and stress.

A balance of information, nuanced and carefully managed activities and discussion we hope will begin to change this worrying rise in use. We should also be aware that MDMA and cocaine-use is also rising among 16 to 24-year-olds, so drug education as part of secondary PSHE has never been more important.

Approaches that work

As we approach the end of term, post-exams parties, first festivals, leaving school and heading off on gap years and to university, now is an excellent time to focus on harm reduction for older pupils – covering transition including reaching the legal drinking age, negotiating the night time economy, and being “Fresher-ready”.

These are good ways to talk about resilience, personal responsibility and choice as young people leave the structure of school and family. Prevention and early intervention approaches for earlier year groups can be covered at any point during the academic year, too.

Avoid just information-giving

There is plenty of evidence to tell us what doesn’t work in changing young people’s behaviour and one common warning is to avoid focusing on just basic fact-giving – such as detailing the different substances and their effects and the law for example. In fact, this kind of approach can increase curiosity and desire to experiment if RSHE lessons do not at the same time address the building of skills and good decision-making.

Fear arousal and avoiding stigma

Similarly using shock tactics, fear arousal or ex-addicts sharing their life experiences are not effective either. Some pupils will be living with drug-use in the family home and these approaches can be stigmatising. Avoiding judgement or falling back on a “just say no” message is hard – this education needs a nuanced approach if it is to be effective.

Build general resilience, self-esteem and confidence

For drug education to be effective it has to recognise the pressures and reality of young people’s lives. It needs to be built with a series of lessons over the course of a student’s school life, while avoiding being repetitive.

In years 8 and 9 substance misuse can be covered in a more general preventative way using role play, resilience strategies, scenarios and social skills. Using pictures and stories to enable group work and discussion in helpful too.

Links to good mental health

Teenagers, especially those suffering from anxiety and stress, may believe that cannabis can help with their mental health and wellbeing, so talking about “ways to wellbeing” and alternative ways to deal with stress and anxiety is a good way to talk about cannabis.

You may find the Life Stuff website a useful resource for teenagers to explore issues around gaming, gambling, drugs, alcohol, money worries, and mental health issues.

Do not exclude

Exclusion should be a last resort. Build connections with local services and helplines as a priority.

Permanent and fixed exclusions from school as a result of alcohol or drugs have been increasingly significantly in recent years (DfE, 2021). Sometimes exclusion cannot be avoided, but rather than zero tolerance approaches, pastoral leads must do everything to explore the underlying causes of use or supply and refer to local services and helplines and confer with parents or carers.

It may be a safeguarding issue around county lines or grooming and it must be our responsibility to do everything in our power to protect children from exploitation and abuse where possible.

As safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose (2022) wrote in SecEd recently discussing the “Child Q” safeguarding practice review from City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership: “The recommendation that a safeguarding response is paramount when dealing with substance misuse issues is pertinent to this case and many others, but so is the idea of taking a ‘safeguarding first’ approach to any issue presenting as a serious behaviour incident.”

  • Helena Conibear is CEO of The Alcohol Education Trust, a charity which works across the UK to keep young people safe around alcohol. It works with schools and youth organisations, offering free resources and training aimed at supporting young people aged 11 to 25.

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