AFN throws wrinkle into rollout of legalizing pot

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Last week, the AFN announced the formation of a committee to study how aboriginal territories will implement their own regulations.


First published on Monday, December 11, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—As the date for legal pot nears, the Assembly of First Nations has thrown a new wrinkle into the rollout.

Last week, the AFN announced the formation of a committee to study how aboriginal territories will implement their own regulations. Regional chiefs from Quebec and Ontario share committee duties, and are expected to report on all aspects of their own proposals for legalization of cannabis.

Ontario chief Isadore Day suggested the committee may want to raise the age for legal consumption on their own territories, based on studies that show young brains are still being formed into the early twenties.

As with the provinces, there is no unanimity on how the new laws will apply. But there is unanimity on one issue, First Nations say that they will determine the rules around the use and sale of marijuana on reserves and will not be governed by any federal or provincial laws.

Many of the points raised at the AFN annual meeting last week are certainly worthy of consideration.

If the Government of Canada is committed to a nation-to-nation approach, then any move which has a direct impact on Indigenous communities needs to be based on some form of agreement.

But when push comes to shove, just which government will take precedence?

Another sticking point, which has also been the main bone of contention with the provinces, is around revenue sharing.

Currently, cigarettes manufactured and sold on multiple reserves across Canada are free of tax, ostensibly to be available to those on the territory who enjoy tax-free status. In reality, many points of sale are adjacent to large urban areas, and cigarettes are also sold to those who come to the reserve to avoid the hefty “sin” taxes currently levied on tobacco by all governments.

Presumably, on-reserve marijuana dispensaries would enjoy similar tax treatment, and the temptation to sell the product to neighbouring residents who do not enjoy tax-exempt status would be huge.

The current proposed patchwork of provincial regulations appears seamless in relation to the multiple regulatory changes that could be involved when laws are developed by more than 600 First Nations and 3,000 reserves across the country.

It seems unlikely that the outcome of any AFN committee findings will be implemented before the July 1 deadline set for legal pot.

But aboriginal business leaders are already moving in to take advantage of the potential pot of gold expected to materialize with legalization.

Even former AFN chief Phil Fontaine is reported to have joined the movement, by partnering with a licensed marijuana producer to create Aboriginal Roots, an on-reserve marijuana franchise grow-op initiative.

In many remote communities, the potential for economic growth is minimal so the financial lure of marijuana businesses is also attractive.

But as Day suggested, there are also potential health and social costs attached to overuse or abuse of the drug. Not surprisingly, AFN leaders across the country are not unanimous in their view of how pot legalization should be carried out.

All this is happening just six months before the implementation target date.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cannot afford to back away from his commitment to legalize marijuana on the next Canada Day.

His government is midway through its mandate, and his surprise victory was largely the result of a surge in support by pot-smoking, next-gen voters, who would not take kindly to a delay.

Given the commitment by Trudeau to reconciliation with First Nations, the prime minister has no option but to negotiate on this issue as a sign of good faith.

Both commitments may seem contradictory.

Some First Nations, like some provinces, are already calling for a delay in the implementation date.

Given the current involvement of organized crime in the illegal drug trade, law enforcement officials will, no doubt, be concerned about the potential for criminality and how that will be managed.

Many questions loom, with few answers.

At the end of the day, the financial windfall that comes with legalization will ensure that all parties come to the table.

The AFN has its work cut out for itself, with the requirement to reach consensus quickly enough to be ready for the July 1 deadline.

So does the government.

As one of the first countries in the world moving to legalize cannabis across the board, Canada is being closely watched by other jurisdictions considering a similar move.

Controversy cannot overshadow the launch of the new pot law. Trudeau and his team need a smooth rollout on legalization. Their re-election may depend on it.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.