Indigenous

Kahnawake's draft cannabis legislation aimed at preventing problems that arose with tobacco

As legalization of recreational marijuana approaches, the Kanien'kehá:ka community of Kahnawake, Que., is in the final stages of deciding how to regulate the burgeoning industry on the reserve.

Residents get chance to weigh in on Mohawk Council's proposed legislation

A cannabis working group appointed by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake has been tasked with developing the Cannabis Control Law. The working group includes council chiefs Gina Deer and Rhonda Kirby. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

As legalization of recreational marijuana approaches, the Kanien'kehá:ka community of Kahnawake, Que., is in the final stages of deciding how to regulate the burgeoning industry on the reserve.

"Until the governments really want input from First Nations, because we've seen it's been very minimal, we have to continue to move forward," said Gina Deer, the portfolio chief for cannabis on the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK).

Kahnawake's proposed Cannabis Control Law is being developed through the Community Decision-Making Process, a consensus-based model for amending and creating legislation.

On Tuesday night, residents had an opportunity to weigh in on the law for the first time since the latest draft was released. The information session was one of two organized by the MCK's cannabis working group to explain its approach to cannabis legalization.

Representatives from the working group said Quebec's cannabis regulations will not apply in their territory and their law is invoking "the exclusive right and jurisdiction to regulate and control cannabis within its territory."

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake hopes to pass its own cannabis legislation before Oct. 17. (Ron Ward/Canadian Press)

"We've always done things on our own jurisdiction. It's our territory and we govern it as we see fit and I think that Quebec is accustomed to that," said Deer.

Asserting jurisdiction

While anyone 18 years and older will be able to consume and purchase marijuana legally under Quebec's laws, Kahnawake's law sets the legal age at 21.

The draft law is also proposing a two-pronged licensing system requiring both the community's and Health Canada's approval for anyone wanting in on the industry within the territory, to the dismay of some people in attendance Tuesday.

Jeremiah Johnson said he feels the Health Canada licence will erode the community's jurisdiction.

"We understand that we protect our jurisdiction and our sovereignty. The last thing we want to do is to impose outside federal laws on our territory and our people," said Johnson, who submitted his own request for cannabis legislation prior to the Mohawk Council.

"By making Kahnawa'kehró:non have to apply and acquire Health Canada permits, we're having to submit to outside law."

Learning from tobacco

Derek Montour, executive director at Kahnawake's health and social services agency, said cannabis abuse and addiction is the second most common substance-related problem the organization deals with. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Johnson drew comparisons to Kahnawake's tobacco industry, where at one time the MCK was discouraging business owners from getting federal and province licences for production and manufacturing cigarettes to defend its own jurisdiction.

Deer said the two-pronged licensing system is a matter of the community not having the expertise and capacity for quality assurance in many aspects of the industry.

"For us, health and safety is first and foremost and it's only responsible for us to take what is out there and utilize it. It doesn't give them the jurisdiction over the territory," she said.

"The long term goal is for us to train ourselves and use our own people to do these things. But until we get to that point we have to outsource."

The development of legislation, Deer said, is also an attempt to prevent other problems that arose with the tobacco industry — the lack of regulations, dozens of cigarettes stores and community members who have been charged with fraud for trafficking contraband tobacco.

"We want everything to be so that we can have an industry and not worry about people being arrested," said Deer.

The concerns prompted a moratorium last October on distribution and sale of cannabis within the community, after dispensaries started opening in other First Nations communities in a similar manner to cigarette shacks in the '80s and '90s.

At least one dispensary, Greenleaf, opened in Kahnawake despite the moratorium, but has been shut down twice by the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, most recently on Aug. 17.

"I don't think our community would be happy with that type of situation," said council chief Rhonda Kirby, who also sits on the working group.

"Look at where the tobacco industry is now. We learned our lesson through tobacco."

MORE FROM CBC INDIGENOUS

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.