Eeyou Istchee will tolerate cannabis when Canada legalizes it

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In the past 12 months, according to the Cree Health Board, more than one in four Crees have used cannabis – including more than half of Cree high school students. One in six Cree high schoolers used cannabis daily. Like alcohol in eight of the nine Cree communities, cannabis is federally outlawed, but it’s not difficult to obtain.

If one front in the war on drugs is ending in Canada with the legalization of cannabis this month, there are no plans to prohibit cannabis in Cree communities in the way alcohol has been banned, notes Cree Nation Government Executive Director Bill Namagoose.

“Eight of the nine communities are ‘dry’ – but they’re not dry,” said Namagoose. “Alcohol prohibition has hurt people more than it’s helped them. A lot of highway deaths are attributed to trying to enforce a dry community. Alcohol prohibition hasn’t worked, and obviously cannabis prohibition wouldn’t work. The thing is to educate the people about how to take care of themselves.”

That means on October 17, when Canada legalizes cannabis for the first time since 1923, the Cree Nation will follow, making no special bylaws to prohibit the drug.

Namagoose said the bylaw power to enact prohibition is given to the local authority, and to date, no band council has indicated an intention to prohibit cannabis consumption.

Namagoose added that cannabis appears in too many forms to try to police it. “You can smoke it, you can eat it, you can drink it,” he noted. “Next thing you know it’ll be cannabis beer – I guess cannabis beer will be prohibited in the Cree communities!”

In Quebec, all legal cannabis will be sold through the newly formed Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), which will only be opening stores in major population centres. As a result, Crees who buy legal cannabis will have to do so online for delivery by Canada Post.

Namagoose said there are psychological and medical risks associated with cannabis use, but that prohibition is not the way to address them.

“The number of youths already using cannabis is very high,” he said. “Cannabis is there already. A lot of people consume alcohol, even though there’s prohibition. Once it’s no longer criminal, the number of criminal records for cannabis will go down – so people’s livelihoods will not be affected. That’s a positive thing.”

The Cree Nation Government, he said, is working on an education and awareness program led by the Cree Board of Health’s Public Health Service. It will inform the population of the Cree Nation about the dangers of cannabis use.

Carmen Chilton is the Board of Health and Social Service’s Planning, Programming and Research Officer for Dependencies. Her team has been developing education materials about the effects of cannabis and its health risks. In part, this will involve relaying the information the Quebec and Canadian governments wish to get out about cannabis, and sharing it via radio, posters and social media.

“Providing education and awareness could help develop or strengthen an understanding of cannabis and its effects,” Chilton told the Nation. “For example, the generation gap that exists – like some Elders could use more information on cannabis. Areas of harm reduction will be an area of focus too, like proper storage and designated smoking areas.”

Cannabis is the most popular illicit substance in the Cree Nation, as it is in Canada. For those worried legalization will mean cannabis use is likely to jump, however, Chilton said research on other places that have legalized it have found there was no significant increase in use once the drug became legal.

Her goals for the Cree Nation are to help educate the public in order for Crees to make informed decisions about cannabis, and understand its potential impacts.

“Legal or not, cannabis is a psychoactive drug that can have long-term effects on wellbeing,” she explained. “Developing a stronger awareness is important, and sometimes the concept of ‘It’s just weed’ minimizes its potential negative consequences if people are abusing it – using lots, binging or using regularly.”

Larry House, Coordinator of Chisasibi’s Mental Wellness Team, had concerns about the potency of cannabis, which has been bred to contain increasingly higher levels of THC – the ingredient that makes a user high – in recent years.

“Personally, I’ve dealt with a couple of acute cases of psychosis brought on by cannabis,” House said. “I don’t know what it is they do with these buds, but they’re more and more potent.”

He was especially concerned about the new generation of cannabis ultra-concentrates (sometimes called “shatter”, “dabs” or “wax”), which pack a powerful amount of THC in a small volume. Though cannabis concentrates (along with edible cannabis products) will not be federally legal until the fall of 2019, the substances are widely available on the black market. Still, House has no faith that a bylaw would prevent Crees from using cannabis or other drugs.

“Prohibition never works – it just makes the Capones get richer,” he said. “Education is the key. That’s what I’m concerned about; there’s not enough of it going on.”

Like Bill Namagoose, Nemaska Certified Addictions Specialist Wayne Rabbitskin acknowledged the potential harms of cannabis, but also pointed out that prohibition has failed to limit those harms. For Rabbitskin, the legalization of cannabis – which has already made a number of Canadians very rich – could be a benefit for the Cree Nation.

“Two or three years down the road, it’ll be all normalized,” Rabbitskin said. “But what I think we need to do is take the opportunity of producing this stuff, and with that money we can create programs.”

Rabbitskin had a strange encounter with a Gatineau police officer recently when he was stopped for a traffic citation. The officer had worked in Whapmagoostui and was interested in developing cannabis-growing facilities in the Cree Nation, and while he was writing Rabbitskin a ticket, the two started talking about the possibilities.

“All the cannabis being produced is for medicinal purposes, for research and medicine, and it’ll all be sent out to Health Canada,” Rabbitskin explained. “He’s looking to have maybe four to six hubs in the Cree Nation, where they produce the cannabis. We’re trying to look at it – we’re trying to figure out how to sell this idea in the Cree nations.”

Cannabis is an intoxicant, he added, but it isn’t only that. It’s also potentially life-changing medicine, not just for epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, but also for nausea, pain and PTSD. For Rabbitskin, this is the most important facet of cannabis.

“Indigenous people have always emphasized the medicinal uses of cannabis, even before Europeans arrived here,” he said. “This is the approach we need to consider. You look at all the medicines that healed First Nations people – traditional healing – it’s all medicinal. I think this is one approach to instil the idea that this is medicine.”

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