The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake has imposed a moratorium on the production, distribution and sale of cannabis on its territory, as the community wrestles with how to deal with the federal government's legalization of marijuana next July.

Chief Gina Deer said Tuesday the Mohawk council plans to pass its own legislation after consulting with residents, many of whom have safety and health concerns about legalization.

"This community has been zero-tolerance for many years," Deer told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"Cannabis has been used medically for some time now, but accepting it as a legal substance is very difficult for our people."

Council Chief Gina Deer

Kahnawake Mohawk Council Chief Gina Deer says council plans to pass its own legislation after consulting with residents, many of whom have safety and health concerns about the legalization of cannabis. (Mohawk Council of Kahnawake)

The decision to impose a moratorium was made unanimously at a council meeting Monday. 

The federal government has vowed to legalize the drug by July 1, 2018. 

The coming change, in Deer's view, represents both an economic opportunity and a potential strain on the community's social fabric. 

As recently as last year, another council chief, Carl Horn, wanted the community to consider banishing known drug dealers to confront what he called an increasingly out-of-control problem with substance abuse.

A recent survey in Kahnawake, on Montreal's South Shore, found that residents are leaning towards supporting community-owned licensed cannabis, as long as its sale occurs off the territory.

Opportunity vs. concern

Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, also has reservations about the coming legalization of cannabis. 

Earlier this year, he questioned whether First Nations in Quebec have the resources to accommodate such an industry.

"The concerns regarding the bill, and eventually the law, certainly outweigh the economic opportunities," Picard said last April.

He said there needs to be more research and program development before communities enter the commercial marijuana market.

Ghislain Picard

The chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, has questioned whether Indigenous communities in Quebec have the resources to accommodate cannabis industries. (Radio-Canada)

The Huron-Wendat community of Wendake has already rejected the possibility of any kind of pot business on its territory.

For Kahnawake Mohawks, Deer said, the history of the federal government's involvement in the tobacco industry on the reserve serves as a cautionary tale.

"We have seen in the past with the tobacco industry how the federal government had issued permits to manufacture tobacco, and we don't want to see a repeat of them issuing permits in our territory," she said.

On the other hand, she said, several residents have reached out to council about the possibility of opening a production centre.

"Definitely, I see this as a great economic engine. If a community is going to agree to a production centre, it could be a great source of jobs," she said.

The Quebec government, for its part, hasn't yet determined how it will regulate legalized marijuana.

Under the planned change at the federal level, it will be up to the provinces to decide many of the rules that will govern marijuana's consumption and sale.