MLAs talk pot at KFN as legalization looms

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As the legalization of marijuana looms, a K’atlodeeche First Nation resident says new legislation presents potential economic benefits for the reserve.

“I look at this as an opportunity,” said Amos Cardinal, addressing a standing committee comprised of GNWT MLAs during a public meeting at the Hay River Reserve’s Chief Lamalice Complex on Tuesday April 24.

The GNWT’s Standing Committee on Social Development, featuring, from left, Michael Nadli, chairperson Shane Thompson, Hay River North’s R.J. Simpson, Julie Green and Tom Beaulieu, fielded questions and concerns from K’atlodeeche First Nation residents on April 24. The talks were meant to gather feedback to form a finalized GNWT cannabis bill. Brendan Burke/NNSL photo

The roundtable discussion, part of the territorial government’s bid to garner feedback from NWT residents on Bill 6 – the GNWT’s answer to federal legalization framework – saw residents of the First Nation gather to share their views and concerns about legal pot and what it could mean for their community.

While the bulk of legalization, including regulation and restriction, will be handled by the feds, the GNWT has a say in the distribution of legal weed, the minimum age for its use, rules around public use and workplace impairment and impaired driving enforcement. All four areas – which the GNWT aims to tailor to the North through public consultations – were on the agenda.

But worries about the social ramifications of legal marijuana, and, adversely, an eagerness to harness its economic potential, dominated discourse at the meeting.

Cardinal, who sat across from government representatives including Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson, committee chairperson Shane Thompson and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, said pot’s impending legalization, coupled with the framework of Bill 6 – the Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Implementation Act – opens the door for legal dispensaries and grow-ops to be established on the reserve.

“Times have changed. Do we want to get involved? Or do we want to sit on the curb and watch the parade go by and continue to struggle with our hand out to the government saying “hey, when do we get our next check?” asked Cardinal.

K’atlodeeche First Nation Chief Roy Fabian didn’t share Cardinal’s enthusiasm on the merits of legalization.

Chief Fabian told the committee he was concerned about legal pot’s presence on the reserve, and wondered what illegitimate drug suppliers would turn to post-legalization.

K’atlodeeche First Nation Chief Roy Fabian expressed concern about the legalization’s impact on the community, which currently prohibits alcohol under the Indian Act.

“So what are (dealers) going to do? Are they going to start trying to push harder drugs?”

Chief Fabian also found the proposed liquor store pairing of pot and alcohol – two drugs he said shared harmful commonalities – to be troubling.

“We know that alcohol and drugs create a lot of social problems. So are the problems going to get worse? Or are they going to get better?” he asked, adding that cannabis’ legalization leaves more questions than answers.

Citing the Indian Act, Chief Fabian said, “I want to be clear with our band members, this doesn’t change our prohibition, and marijuana is going to be prohibited because it’s an intoxicant.”

Under the Indian Act, legal pot would still fall under the same category as alcohol, which is a banned “intoxicant.”

Unless band council decides to revisit prohibition bylaws, cannabis will be barred from the reserve once legalization rolls out.

Cardinal said prohibition is an outdated and ineffective solution.

“Prohibition hasn’t done anything good in this place. All it’s done is given us criminal records at a young age. How do you try to become responsible, take on a job, finance a home when you got a big pile of garbage dragging behind you?” he asked.

Cardinal’s starkly different take on marijuana than that of the Chief’s was emblematic of a generational gap present during the talks – a schism noted by R.J. Simpson.

“There’s an interesting divide between some of the youth and some of the older generation when it comes to the value of prohibition … A lot of younger people, I think, see (marijuana) as not as detrimental as alcohol, plus they see prohibition maybe hasn’t had the desired effects that people want and so they’re much more open to embracing it as a business opportunity,” said Simpson.

As for the sale of legal weed on K’atlodeeche First Nation, Simpson said, “the minister can designate a vendor and so if anyone on this reserve wanted to become a vendor, and they met the requirements and the community agreed, then I don’t see why there couldn’t be a vendor on reserve. That’s up to the community, but if they wanted to do that I’d be in support of them,” said Simpson.

The committee road tour – a response to a fast-approaching federal deadline to craft cannabis legislation – will stop in Hay River today at 7 p.m.

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As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility to be there - day or night, rain or shine. When I’m not at court gathering stories, I’m in the office, making calls to lawyers, emailing RCMP and tracking down sources. After hours, I rely on the public to let me know what’s happening and where. Entering my second winter in Yellowknife since leaving my hometown of Peterborough, Ont., in October 2017, everyday on this beat continues to be challenging, rewarding and fulfilling. Got a story? Call me at (867) 766-8288 or shoot me an email at editorial@nnsl.com.