Marijuana laws have long been enforced more harshly against indigenous people than on the general population. In Regina, for example, indigenous people are nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people are.
This is despite the fact that cannabis consumption rates are about the same across all races. Such uneven enforcement of the law makes cannabis legalization an important if often overlooked step in the reconciliation process with First Nations.
Events, protest movements and attempts to uncover the truth about indigenous issues in Canada like Idle No More, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) Inquiry, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have finally made these national, mainstream issues. Many indigenous communities see cannabis legalization as not only a chance to redress past and current wrongs, but also as a way to help their communities assert greater sovereignty.
However, there’s also concern—and even downright fear—over the unintended consequences legal cannabis could have for some First Nations. Indigenous voices have largely been treated as an afterthought by Ottawa during the legalization process. What’s worse is that in some provinces the regulatory framework for marijuana could continue to discriminate against indigenous people who buy and consume cannabis.
Can Marijuana Help Address Past & Current Injustices Against First Nations?
We often like to think of our country as being a strong human rights defender, but Canada’s record on indigenous rights leaves much to be desired. The United Nations Human Rights Council has called the treatment of indigenous people, especially indigenous women, Canada’s “most urgent human rights issue.” Possibly as many as 4,000 indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered since 1980, with the most notorious cases occurring along British Columbia’s “Highway of Tears.”
As well, the residential school system saw approximately 30% of all indigenous children in the country taken from their families and placed in schools where they were prohibited from speaking their language or practicing their own beliefs. They were often kept in inhumane conditions and were subject to extremely high rates of sexual and physical violence. At some schools, 47–75% of indigenous children died, often due to disease and unsanitary conditions.
Given this ongoing legacy of colonialism, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression are believed to be higher among indigenous communities than in the general population.
Cannabis has been shown to be an effective treatment for PTSD, anxiety and depression. Of course, legal cannabis isn’t going to undo centuries of cultural genocide and violence, but it offers some hope for those suffering from mental health disorders caused by intergenerational trauma. Cannabis can help with many of these disorders and is often a safer alternative to highly addictive pharmaceutical drugs.
Legal Cannabis Raises Questions of Sovereignty & Culture for First Nations
Cannabis legalization presents an opportunity for indigenous communities to assert their sovereignty. As well, many indigenous people see the legal cannabis movement as a way for their communities to take control over how this plant can be used for traditional medicinal purposes.
Also, indigenous-run cannabis operations present a significant opportunity to generate revenue for First Nations. The Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, for example, recently became the largest shareholder of a chain of cannabis clinics. The revenue earned from these clinics will be put back into communities to build schools and fund programs to promote indigenous languages.
To be sure, there’s debate among indigenous people and even within individual First Nations about what role—if any—cannabis should play in their communities. The Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario, for example, has embraced indigenous cannabis and recently held the first Indigenous Cannabis Cup to help celebrate indigenous cannabis issues.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Six Nations, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, recently became the only reserve in Ontario to use police raids to try to shut down the thriving cannabis dispensary business there. Some other First Nations have vowed to prohibit the sale of cannabis on their lands.
Indigenous Voices Still Left Out of Marijuana Legalization
Despite the hope that cannabis will allow some indigenous communities to assert their sovereignty rights and address past wrongs, there are concerns about how the federal and provincial governments have addressed indigenous issues during the legalization process.
Indigenous leaders, regardless of their own stance on cannabis, have widely condemned the federal government for treating them as afterthoughts during the debate surrounding legalization. The final vote on Bill C-45, for example, was delayed by a Senate indigenous committee over the lack of input from First Nations. The Assembly of First Nations has also complained that the tax revenue split agreed between the federal government and the provinces excludes First Nations.
Cannabis Control Given to First Nations Varies by Province
Essentially, Ottawa has left regulation of cannabis up to the provinces. Some provinces, notably Manitoba, have taken efforts to allow individual First Nations to decide for themselves, whether cannabis can be grown and sold on their lands. Provinces that are allowing private retailers to sell marijuana have so far presented more opportunities for indigenous communities to set up their own cannabis-based businesses.
On the other hand, provinces such as Ontario and Quebec that want cannabis retailers to be government-run, could pose difficulties for indigenous communities. In such provinces, government-run retailers will likely be confined mainly to larger towns and cities, especially in the early days of legalization. For some remote First Nations, this puts them in the position of having to fly or drive long distances to buy legal cannabis—or breaking the law by setting up private cannabis businesses closer to home.
What’s worse is that violating the Cannabis Act is no small matter. While the law ends marijuana prohibition and replaces it with a regulatory framework, going against these regulations could lead to even lengthier prison sentences than are currently enforced against marijuana consumers.
For example, selling marijuana without government authorization will be punishable by a prison sentence of up to 14 years. The same goes for providing minors with cannabis.
These harsh sentences could keep up the over-criminalization of indigenous people that has gone on during cannabis prohibition. Cannabis legalization is absolutely the right step forward and, if done right, presents an opportunity to advance the cause of reconciliation.
But by failing to address the concerns raised by indigenous people now, Canada risks creating a legal marijuana system with the same biases and injustices against indigenous communities as we saw under prohibition.
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