Ban on 'intoxicants' will keep legal cannabis off N.W.T. reserve

On K’atl’odeeche First Nation territory, where intoxicants have been illegal since the 1980s, community members have a choice to make: will they repeal their prohibition for Canada’s newest legal drug?

K'atl'odeeche First Nation residents can request amendment to general ban to include cannabis, says chief

K’atl’odeeche First Nation Chief Roy Fabian made an impassioned plea for Dene leaders to support postponing the legalization of cannabis across the nation last month. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

With cannabis legalization on the way, communities across the Northwest Territories have a decision to make — will they hold a vote to ban cannabis after more than 90 years of prohibition ends?

On K'atl'odeeche First Nation territory, however, where intoxicants have been illegal since the 1980s, community members have the opposite choice to make: will they repeal their prohibition for Canada's newest legal drug?

The K'atl'odeeche First Nation Reserve is one of six dry communities in the N.W.T. Under a section of the Indian Act, First Nations can prohibit the sale and consumption of all intoxicants on their territory.

For K'atl'odeeche Chief Roy Fabian, that law includes cannabis by default.

"Personally … I don't agree with the prohibition," said Fabian. "But because I'm a chief, there's a bylaw in place, I gotta enforce it."

Prohibition last reviewed in 1990

Laws legalizing the sale, growth and consumption of cannabis are coming into effect across Canada as of Oct. 17.

Northwest Territories legislation provides communities with the option of holding a vote to ban or restrict cannabis, similar to what exists for liquor.

Jeff Fabian, who lives on K’atl’odeeche First Nation, says he's concerned prohibition harms community members. (submitted by Jeff Fabian)

K'atl'odeeche's prohibition was last reviewed in 1990, according to Fabian, when a vote upheld a general ban on intoxicants.

That language means community members will still not have the right to possess and use cannabis, even after it is legalized in Canada.

Jeff Fabian, a distant relative of Roy Fabian, is a K'atl'odeeche resident and band employee. He says prohibition only harms community members.

The system of fines and penalties for possession and consumption leaves many people facing heavy consequences for addiction, he said.

Under the current prohibition, violators face a penalty set by the Indian Act of up to $100 and three months in jail. People selling or producing cannabis can face fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

People need to know what those risks are, 100 per cent, before they take a toke- Roy Fabian

Jeff Fabian said he is concerned the consequences are more serious than fines.

"The culture here right now is that anybody who … does recreational drugs, anybody who drinks is immediately deemed ill or evil," he said. "That's a really dangerous mindset to have for somebody who is dealing with an addiction."

The 'risks' of legalization

Chief Roy Fabian said he would be open to the idea of a vote to amend the bylaw to exclude cannabis, but community members would have to request the vote in order for council to consider it.

"They know all the channels we have," he said. "We have certain procedures … if they raise the issue, the council will have to consider it."

But Roy Fabian warned legalization poses "a lot of risk" to young people and the community at large.

Anyone over the age 19 will be able to purchase cannabis after it's legalized in Canada, but medical evidence suggests the drug can impact brain development in people under 25, he added.

"People need to know what those risks are, 100 per cent, before they take a toke," he said.

Despite his objections to prohibition, Jeff Fabian said he too would probably not push council to lift the ban.

"It's a difficult position to be in, because even if we were to drop prohibition, we have no resources to reach out to, or funding to create those resources here," he said.

Of the five other communities with prohibitions, four confirmed their bylaws cover only liquor. In Wekweeti, officials said the community was "dry" but would not say if cannabis was covered by the prohibition.