Pubdate: Mon, 25 Sep 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Author: Allan Woods
Page: A2


As pot legalization looms, Indigenous communities are weighing
benefits, risks

MONTREAL- Is it a cash crop to lift struggling First Nations out of
poverty, or a vice posing a particular risk for a vulnerable population?

As Canada forges ahead with the legalization of marijuana, slated for
July 2018, Indigenous people are split about what to do on their territory.

A number of First Nations have signed investment deals with marijuana
producers, lured by the promise of profits and other benefits. Others
have slammed on the brakes until they can draw up their own rules for
growing and selling what is, for a few more months, an illegal drug.

"What the communities are obviously going to be looking at is how far
we go with this. Do we accept it fully? Do we accept it in part? Or do
we just say 'Absolutely not'?" said Assembly of First Nations Regional
Chief Isadore Day, who represents Ontario. The Mohawk Council of
Kahnawake, south of Montreal, issued a moratorium earlier this month
on the production, distribution and sale of cannabis on its territory
until such time as it can adopt its own regulations.

Summer consultations revealed there is support for establishing
marijuana-related businesses in the community and an appreciation of
the therapeutic uses of the drug. But there are also significant
health and public safety concerns, said Kahnawake Council Chief Gina

"We're a vulnerable population and due to that there's concern about
legalization and the abuse of (marijuana), because we've also seen the
abuse of alcohol," she said. "Yes, it's a good tool for certain things
and it is used in the medical industry, but it can't become a crutch
and that's the fear, being a vulnerable population."

Deer said the marijuana moratorium in Kahnawake became an urgent
matter for the community only after a recent trip west along Highway
401 to visit the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont.,
where cannabis capitalism has run amok.

There are currently 16 marijuana dispensaries - some run out of
storefront operations, others run out of peoples' homes.

None are registered businesses with the band council and all are
technically illegal, the Tyendinaga council said in a statement this
summer. But there is little impetus or urgency by police or
prosecutors to shut the unlicensed pot shops down and lay charges.

"The council did meet with the federal Crown attorney, who advised us
that the judges in the Belleville court do not want to hear these
cases, that it's not a good use of court resources and time, and the
police believe that it's a grey area, so there's really no law
enforcement," Tyendinaga Chief Don Maracle said in an interview.

Everyone is looking for direction. First Nations representatives from
both Quebec and Ontario are meeting with their respective provincial
government officials this week to discuss the matter, though many
Indigenous communities don't know themselves what direction to take.

"There are some communities who are saying that Canada can do what it
wants but in terms of our community we're the sole entity who will
decide," said AFN Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, who represents
Quebec and Labrador.

"At the same time some chiefs are saying that it's going to happen so
let's be ready for it and if there are economic spinoffs from it, it's
for the benefit of the community."

Chief Day said the AFN wants to ensure that provincial taxes collected
on marijuanasales and federal excise taxes paid by marijuana producers
come back to Indigenous communities.

"If there is an uptake of, say, $300 million in excise tax from a
facility that goes to the federal government, why wouldn't that excise
tax be placed in First Nations to ensure our health systems can become
much more able to deal with the health issues and impacts of
addiction?" he asked.

The Wahgoshig First Nation, with a registered population of about 230
people, is far ahead of the others. Located about 100 kilometres north
of Kirkland Lake, Ont., near the border with Quebec, it was the first
Indigenous community in the country to sign an investment and benefits
deal with a medicinal marijuana producer.

In return for a $3-million investment in Delshen Therapeutics in
November 2015, which operates its cannabis facility out of a former
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources tree nursery on Wahgoshig
territory, the company was offering a seat on its board, employment
guarantees and funding for a drug and alcohol treatment centre, said
Mylon Ollila, Wahgoshig's executive director.

At first there was debate about the ethics of investing in cannabis.
But it was not so difficult to rationalize involvement in marijuana
cultivation in a community that is otherwise reliant on non-renewable
industries like mining.

"First Nations have been harvesting traditional medicines and plant
medicines for generations. This is something that already was much
more aligned with First Nations' values," Ollila said, adding that
marijuana's medicinal attributes could also help deal with the
community's prescription painkiller problems.

"We kind of see it as replacing something that has been harmful to our

Since that deal was signed, 48 other First Nations communities have
also invested in Delshen Therapeutics. That has been the work of Jacob
Taylor and Jonathan Araujo, the Indigenous advisers for the cannabis
company and founders of the Pontiac Group, which work on First Nations
economic development.

Araujo said there have been a range of reactions to the idea of
partnering with a medicinal marijuana company.

"Some people who morally object to it still see the economic impact
and the inevitability of its arrival," he said. "Other people object
on moral grounds and still have no interest in it."

"On the flip side," said Taylor, "this is a plant and it is in line
with our Indigenous values. We've consulted elders and traditional
healers and they've advised us that this is a plant that they used for
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