First Nations cultivate community laws on cannabis

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In Canada’s rush to legalize cannabis, many First Nations felt that there was inadequate consultation and preparation regarding issues such as revenue sharing, regulatory control and taxation. Some have chosen not to wait for provincial governments to dictate the terms of cultivation, sales and distribution.

Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, located in the Gaspé region of Quebec, is the first in the province to establish its own framework for recreational marijuana. It passed the Listuguj Cannabis Law last October 16, the day before legalization took effect across Canada.

“We wanted to make sure that with legalization, we would have a system in place for ensuring that if there is distribution which occurs in our community it would be done in a way that the community supported,” Chief Darcy Gray told the Nation.

With legalization on the horizon, the Listuguj government initiated exploratory discussions in late 2016, seeking opinions on the issue from the community and other First Nations. While responses varied widely – from an outright ban to a total free-for-all – the majority of perspectives recognized that cannabis use is inevitable and the priority should be ensuring quality and regulatory controls.

They spoke to various First Nations in Western Canada with similar goals, getting ideas for their law and realizing the importance of a community-driven approach. Positive debate and participation accompanied the law’s development, paving the way for strong majority approval in a community referendum.

“I think it would be a fool’s errand if we were to try to ban cannabis,” said Gray, noting that a legal outlet exists just five minutes away in Campbellton, New Brunswick. As Listuguj territory extends to the provincial border, only a bridge over the Salmon River separates it from Campbellton, where most of the community’s shopping is done.

While both Quebec and New Brunswick sell recreational cannabis through a government monopoly, only Quebec law allows for alternate arrangements with First Nations.

“The law provides the possibility for the Quebec government to accept agreements with an Indigenous community to modify its applicable framework,” Marie-Claude Lacasse, spokesperson for the Quebec Health and Social Services Ministry, stated in an email to the Nation.

“The content of these agreements must pursue the same objectives as [the provincial cannabis law],” she continued. “To date, no agreement has been reached.”

Gray is eager to develop a mutually beneficial agreement with Quebec “in the spirit of reconciliation,” but said that discussions have so far been limited to informal talks months ago. He has met with task forces at the national and provincial levels and still has many unresolved questions about issues such as taxation.

“My point at that time was expressing that we as a government should have the same opportunities that they do as a government to access from licenced producers and then distribute to our dispensaries,” Gray said.

This perspective seems to be shared by communities such as Six Nations in Ontario, Canada’s most populous First Nation, which passed its own cannabis law on February 25. Its regulations intend to protect health and safety while also preventing “interference by external law enforcement into Six Nations domestic affairs.”

Similar to Listuguj, Six Nations’ law prohibits smoking in public and below the minimum age and other possession restrictions aligned with federal law. It also stipulates that 8% of a vendor’s monthly sales must go to the band office for community projects.

“The days of them sitting and telling us this is how it’s going to be need to end,” elected Chief Ava Hill said in August when Six Nations began drafting their law.

“I think that’s where the importance of developing our own community law was so important,” Gray confirmed. “Our perspective as a community is that provincial laws don’t apply. We didn’t want to leave any grey areas and make sure that we had something in place.”

This includes the creation of a Cannabis Control Office to not only administer and enforce the law but also issue production, distribution and dispensary licences. The band would control 51% of any cannabis business, but would not take a share of profits.

Gray is aware of entrepreneurs within the community interested in opening up dispensaries on Listuguj territory. There have also been exploratory discussions about eventually opening a dispensary owned on behalf of all the community.

“What we also have to do is ensure that we can make that bridge between the licenced producer and the eventual entrepreneur, whether that be us or individuals within the community,” said Gray.

Listuguj has been proactive on the production front as well, investing $3 million two years ago in the Zenabis facility in nearby Atholville, New Brunswick. It is the largest indoor growing facility in Canada and the partnership has already resulted in promising impacts.

Gray explained they have introduced a horticultural program in the community to train members on regulations, growing techniques and standard operating procedures for working at the facility. Over 30 community members have worked at Zenabis, which offers opportunities for career advancement.

“One of our young fellows who took the training started [at Zenabis] – a year later he’s in a supervisor position and has actually transferred to another facility to help them with their procedures and teaching people how to grow,” enthused Gray.

Several First Nations across the country are capitalizing on cannabis legalization by developing similar partnerships. Some already host production facilities and licenced retail stores on their territory. Many are excited about the prospect of generating a stable income source and getting out from “under the government’s thumb.”

“I wish it was that easy that we could just drive across the bridge and bring it back,” Gray laughingly responded when asked if Zenabis could supply his community with legal pot. “It would make too much sense.”

With their partners managing the growing aspect, Listuguj is intent on developing its distribution capacity as the community sees fit. For Gray, cannabis legalization is an opportunity for the government to put talk about reconciliation and rights recognition into action.

“It’s the consideration for how our people do that through our own structures, our own legislation and distribution channels,” Gray insisted. “That seemed to be at no point considered along the path to legalization. For me, it would be key that that gets rectified ASAP.”


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