As Canada prepares for next summer’s recreational cannabis legalization, First Nations leaders are making it known that they must be given the right to govern the sale and distribution of cannabis within their own communities.
At this week’s annual Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Chiefs across the board agreed that it is the First Nations – and not the federal or provincial governments – that will determine cannabis regulations on reserves.
"Above all we do need to look at this from a jurisdictional lens," said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.
"Our people are going to say, 'Listen, we have aboriginal treaty rights, we have economic rights as First Nations people. Who is Canada to say we can't have a dispensary in our community?'"
A new AFN committee – spearheaded by Day and Quebec Regional Chief Ghislain Picard – will focus on making sure the First Nations are supported as they adjust to legalization. The committee will also document any concerns the First Nations may have surrounding possible health, social, and economic impacts of cannabis legalization.
Day said some First Nations may not agree with a province's decision regarding the legal age to purchase and consume cannabis. He said that while provincial officials may say the legal age is 18, “what if a [First Nations] community says we want it to be 23 or 24 because the studies show that the development of a young person's brain isn't complete until they are in their 20s?"
Representatives of some First Nations communities at the Assembly actually expressed their opposition to cannabis legalization. These tended to be smaller, more isolated reserves in the northern part of the country that may not have the opportunity to benefit financially from legalization.
"Marijuana is just another drug that people will take advantage of," said Ignace Gull, the Chief of Attawapiskat in northwestern Ontario. "It will affect the community because we don't have the resources to deal with this. There is no funding to educate or make people aware of what cannabis is all about.”
Chiefs in parts of the country closer to urban areas, on the other hand, see the potential in cannabis legalization and want to manage its dissemination come July 1, 2018.
"They want in on the economic benefit to create jobs and earn revenue," said Donald Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in southeastern Ontario.
While acknowledging that there should be rules prohibiting driving while high, as well as those that keep children away from cannabis, Maracle said: "there is a huge question about whether Ontario's laws can even apply on reserve."