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Background

On April 13th, 2017, the federal government introduced Bill C-45, or the Cannabis Act, which is new legislation that will establish the legislative framework for cannabis, identifying permitted and prohibited activities. Generally speaking, the federal framework is less extensive than that of alcohol and more extensive than tobacco while maintaining its criminal law effectiveness (see figure 1).

The Government of Canada’s goal is to keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian youth, and to prevent organized crime from continuing to profit from the illegal cannabis market. Canadians continue to use cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world. In 2015, 21% of youth and 30% of young adults reported using cannabis within the last year [1]. A baseline study still needs to be established in order to better capture how prevalent cannabis use is among youth and at-risk people in First Nation communities. The concern of abiding to OCAP principles during such data collection have been raised.

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Current Status

The bill has received second reading and has been referred to the standing committee on health, which will be reviewed (clause-by-clause) in September 2017. The Act* provides the licensing and oversight of the legal cannabis supply chain. This pertains to:

  1. Federal Minister of Health holding authority to license production, import/export and distribution through the supply chain to the point of retail sale;
  2. The recognition of provincial & territorial authority to regulate the sale of cannabis, subject to the minimum federal conditions.

*n.b. Criminal prohibitions (e.g. youth possession) will remain along with broad regulatory authority.  The federal government has indicated on their website that the cannabis legislation will come into force no later than July 2018.

Impact on First Nations

The impact that the proposed Cannabis Act will have on First Nations remains unclear, but they are far ranging. Broadly speaking, this legislation will impact health and social well-being, economics, and the justice sector.

Some First Nations have expressed interest in using this new legislation to economically benefit their communities. In brief, the legalization of cannabis will create a new economic opportunity for First Nations to potentially take advantage. However, cannabis was introduced post-contact, and therefore does not fall under the treaty rights of First Nations (unlike tobacco). The details of how First Nations can enter the market remains unclear.

Also, legalization of cannabis will impact the justice sector for First Nation communities, though still there are more questions than answers. How, for example, will dry communities address the use of cannabis on reserve? Who will be responsible to monitor cannabis use in homes and growing facilities? What jurisdiction will First Nation police services have regarding cannabis? How will fire risks inherent with the equipment used to grow and dry cannabis be managed? These questions all need answers, which will be included in the proposed legislation.

First Nation leadership has raised many concerns on the government’s approach to cannabis legalization. Some of these are:

  1. Lack of consultation from Indigenous communities and lack of representation at provincial tables & discussions
  2. Severe lack of resources that create an uneven playing field
  3. Need to address mental health and addiction funding and education programs
  4. Recommendation that cannabis legislation should follow suit the legislation around Tobacco use and its revenue allocation
  5. Lack of clarity regarding who will be regulating cannabis within communities
  6. There is a need to address distribution of licenses and how the retail market will function and serve First Nation communities – for example, for some communities, there exists vendors outside of communities that require the use of provincial roads, how will licenses be distributed?
  7. Each community have different needs and ways of doing things, so the provincial government needs to be cognizant when they reach out

Next Steps

As part of a resolution by the Chiefs during the December 2016 Assembly of First Nations, the Ontario Legalization of Cannabis Secretariat will organize and engage a series of meetings with FN leaders to discuss and address the specific impacts and solutions mentioned above as well as others.

For the week of July 10th, Ontario released a public survey that invited feedback and written responses. The public was encouraged to provide their input.

Ontario is now crafting policies for legalization of cannabis. COO and PTOs are continuing to engage with the province as this process continues.

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