Substance use

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Last updated: October 18, 2021

substance abuse information


Substances are things people take into their bodies (e.g. eating, drinking or smoking) that change how they feel physically and/or emotionally. These can include alcohol and other drugs (illegal or not like cannabis, caffeine and prescription medications) as well as some substances that are not drugs at all.

Using substances can:

  • Make it hard to control your actions
  • Affect your health and development
  • Change how you make decisions, how you think and how quickly you can react

For some people, alcohol or other drug use may turn into a substance use problem.

Every time someone uses substances they are taking a risk, which may include serious harm or even death. An overdose happens when someone takes a toxic amount of a substance or mix of substances. Anyone can overdose.

People of all ages and backgrounds are being affected by an increase of drug overdoses linked with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Fentanyl has been found in cocaine, crack, MDMA (ecstasy), crystal meth, heroin, and in fake OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax. This list of drugs containing fentanyl is constantly changing, this is part of the risk in using substances.

Harm reduction is a public health approach that aims to lessen risks related to substance use. Harm reduction includes many options and approaches; it may include not using substances at all. Harm reduction is about meeting people wherever they are to lessen the negative effects of substance use. These may include social, physical, emotional and/or spiritual concerns. Harm reduction helps ensure services are non-judgmental and available to all.

Evidence shows that harm reduction does not increase or encourage substance use.

Harm reduction treats people with respect. It helps people connect with others and develop healthy relationships.

It is now legal for anyone over the age of 19 to possess, buy or use cannabis (marijuana, pot or weed) in B.C. It is illegal for anyone to use cannabis on school property or other places where children and youth commonly spend time (i.e. playgrounds, beaches, parks). It's still illegal for anyone under 19 in B.C. to possess, buy or use cannabis without medical authorization.

Vaping devices heat a liquid into a vapour or aerosol. The user then inhales the vapour or aerosol. Vapour products are always evolving and contain various chemicals and levels of nicotine. Some products use nicotine salts which have a far higher concentration than cigarettes. 

It is well known that there are many health risks related to smoking cigarettes. Vaping is often recommended as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes. However, Health Canada has said that the long-term health impacts of vaping are unknown. Yet, there is enough evidence to justify preventing youth and non-smokers from vaping. 

Tobacco and vaping products fall under two acts: 

  • The Federal Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, regulates the accessibility, advertisement and sale of vaping products
  • The B.C. Tobacco and Vapour Products Control Act, regulates the use, sale and display of tobacco and vapour products in B.C. 

The Ministry of Health administers the Tobacco and Vapour Products Control Act.

The act bans: 

  • The sale of all tobacco and vapour products to anyone under age 19
  • Smoking and vaping in schools and on school grounds


Drinking alcohol has both short-term and long-term effects on the body. When a person drinks alcohol, it slows down their brain and how it works with the rest of the body. It is harder to think clearly, react quickly, and be co-ordinated (use fine motor skills). Drinking alcohol also influences mood and judgement. Drinking can be damaging to healthy brain development.

How alcohol affects a person might be different based on:

  • How often they drink
  • How recently and what they have eaten
  • Their sex, size, and metabolism
  • If they are mixing substances (including medications)
  • What they are drinking (strength of drink, amount, how quickly they are drinking)

It is illegal for anyone under 19 to buy, possess, or drink alcohol. Despite this and the potential health risks, some youth may still choose to drink alcohol.  In these cases, reducing the risks of harm to health, relationships, and overall well-being is important. See these Tips for Safer Alcohol Use from Foundry to understand ways to reduce harm.  





The global COVID-19 pandemic has introduced an extra layer of stress into the lives of B.C.’s students and this may have created or added to mental health needs. Some people may increase their substance use in response to the pandemic. People who smoke or vape are at a higher risk of serious illness and complications if they get COVID-19.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) is the best source for COVID-19 health information

As a result of the pandemic, we know students, educators, staff and administrators are living with anxiety, stress and other mental health needs.

Government has provided a one-time $5 million investment to support mental health services for students and staff, in addition to existing funding. These funds will allow schools to expand existing programs and introduce new supports to address the mental health needs of students and staff.

In spring 2021, a mental health working group was established with representatives from the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC), primary care, government, Indigenous educators and rights holders, administrative and union groups and other stakeholders in education. The working group is outlining key principles and developing resources to ensure the mental health needs of students and staff are being met.

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Know the risks and signs of overdose

Recognizing the risks and signs of an overdose and knowing how to respond can save lives. Fentanyl and other opioid overdoses slow down breathing so much that a person doesn’t get enough oxygen, and this can be fatal.

Naloxone is a medication anyone can learn to use to quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Learn how and when to use naloxone, receive tips on talking honestly and openly about substances and overdose, and find supervised consumption and overdose prevention services in your community.

If you suspect an overdose call 9-1-1 and administer naloxone if available

If you have a non-emergency health concern

Call 811 to speak with a nurse any time of the day or night.

If you or a friend needs help dealing with a problem

Reach out to an adult and get help.

If you're a family member, teacher or another supportive adult

Talk with young people about using substances. Be a sensitive and respectful listener. Talk openly and honestly about the effects of substances. Ask questions about what kids are hearing, seeing or have learned. Talk about why people use substances and the potential consequences. Create an open and judgement-free environment where it's safe to ask questions. Look for natural opportunities to discuss the topic.

Educate yourself. Learn about commonly used substances. Find out how they work, what their street names are, and the signs of being under the influence. Be prepared to provide answers in a way that that's easy to understand. If you don’t know the answer, offer to find it together.

Stick to the facts. Explain how lethal fentanyl can be and that it's impossible to know which drugs contain it without using drug checking services. Use information from reliable sources and avoid scare tactics and exaggeration. Make heartfelt expressions of concern for safety, health and wellness.

Be an advocate. Support young people to do as much for themselves as possible – help them build connections, access services, and create their own network of support. When necessary, speak up on their behalf.

Ask for help. Don't try to deal with things on your own. Reach out to a crisis centre, counsellor or doctor for support. Get help or show them where they can get help for themselves.

substance abuse resources






In the governance model for our K-12 education system, local boards of education have authority to determine the delivery of education programs in their schools, including:

  • Decisions related to resource allocations
  • Human resources
  • Specific student services

While we:

  • Set provincial regulations and policies
  • Provide funding
  • Monitors student success

We continue to work with school districts and other education partners to facilitate all students' educational success.

The following sites are free curated curriculum repositories for B.C. teachers that specifically tie to the K-12 curriculum.