Cree Nation hopes legalization and education will reduce high cannabis use

Representatives of the Cree Nation Government in northern Quebec say they hope legalization of cannabis in Canada will help create a more open and honest discussion about the dangers of its use, particularly among youth.

A study published in 2015 suggests 47% of Cree youth attending high school used cannabis

A look inside the Société québécoise du cannabis store on St-Hubert Street in Montreal. There are not, at the moment, any government run outlets in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Representatives of the Cree Nation Government in northern Quebec say they hope legalization of cannabis in Canada will help create a more open and honest discussion about the dangers of its use, particularly among youth. 

Statistics from the Cree Board of Health show close to half (47 per cent) of Cree high school students attending school in 2014 reported using cannabis. Sixteen per cent of the students admitted to using cannabis daily and 14 per cent said they used it at least once a week. Seventeen per cent of users experimented with cannabis once, or used it once a month.

According to Radio-Canada, Val d'Or is one of the cities earmarked by Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) to eventually have a storefront. (Gosia Wozniacka/The Associated Press)

Findings from the Québec Population Health Survey also suggest cannabis use among Cree adults is considerably higher and more frequent than in the general Quebec population. 

"It's a product being consumed in the Cree world already," said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the the Grand Council of the Crees.

"It's better to have it out in the open and have more enriched discussions about the harmful effects." 

Prohibition of alcohol hasn't worked in Canada.- Bill Namagoose , Cree Nation Government executive director

Namagoose said, under the federal legislation which came into effect Wednesday, the Cree Nation doesn't have the ability to prohibit cannabis use the way many Cree communities have done with alcohol. But it also doesn't have a desire to ban cannabis. 

"Prohibition of alcohol hasn't worked in Canada," said Namagoose.

Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, says the Cree Nation isn't interested in getting into the cannabis business. (Jamie Little/CBC)

He added alcohol prohibition has created a black market. He said it puts lives at risk by exposing people to bootleggers and road accidents as they travel to non-Cree communities, because they can't drink at home. 

The Cree Nation is instead concentrating on an education campaign, through it's department of public health.

"[Youth] are going through this process where their brains are still growing," said Carmen Chilton, a research officer with Cree public health in Mistissini, Que.  

"It's a period where their learning can be impacted, their memory, emotions, mood regulation and sleep. It's like wiring in the brain."

Chilton said Cree public health is focusing efforts on a radio campaign which is already underway. Health information is also being translated into Cree for posters and a social media campaign.

She said there are a lot of "misconceptions" about cannabis use in the Cree Nation.

Harmful for youth

"There is a concept that it is 'just weed,'" said Chilton, adding some strains of marijuana currently available are really potent.

Cree public health says, for young people, not using cannabis at all is the best option until their brains stop growing at the age of 25.

If young people do decide to use, Chilton said, they should not use regularly and should choose less potent products with a lower level of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Public health is also warning people not to drive under the influence, and to store cannabis products away from young children.

There is a concept that it is 'just weed.'- Carmen  Chilton ,  with Cree public health in  Mistissini , Que. 

Under the current provincial legislation the legal age to consume cannabis in Quebec is 18, but the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec says it is considering raising the legal age to 21. 

The Cree Nation Government has requested a meeting with the new provincial government to talk about distribution issues. Namagoose said the Cree Nation Government had also asked for a meeting with the former Liberal government, but it never happened.

The public health department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services is rolling out an education campaign on the dangers of cannabis use, particularly among youth. (CBHSSJB)

''That's what we wanted to talk with Quebec about, what kind of role Cree Nation Government and local band offices can have in distribution,'' said Namagoose, adding the Cree Nation, unlike some other First Nations, isn't interested for now in getting into the cannabis business. 

In Quebec, stores where cannabis products will be available are being run by the Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), a new branch of the government agency which regulates alcohol sales in the province.

There is no SQDC outlet for the moment in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. Namagoose said most Cree will likely order their products online, but he hopes consumption will go down in Eeyou Istchee. 

''I hope [it] won't be cool anymore to smoke,'' said Namagoose.