Harm reduction was the Government of Nunavut's main message at an Iqaluit meeting Feb. 13 about its approach to federal cannabis legalization set to take effect in July. Due to federal timelines, legal sales are unlikely to take place until sometime in August.
For those in attendance, youth were the primary concern.
Caroline Anawak, the first to speak up after a presentation by three government officials, said she recalls working for the Department of Health in 1999.
"At that time I begged, even though cannabis was illegal, I begged colleagues about the moral obligation to start a campaign for public awareness, especially aimed at parents, about the harm being done to young people," Anawak recalled.
Anawak made the point that the literature says cannabis harms the developing brain, adding that youth are using cannabis. Similarly, for those prone to mental illness, cannabis puts them at increased risk. She also noted concern for pregnant mothers and the developing fetus.
"Any youth captured under this, in the sense that if they're caught with cannabis, would fall under the existing youth justice system, which has these special stream(s) where they would be required to do volunteer work or specialized programs," said Justice director of policy and planning Stephen Shaddock.
Finance assistant deputy minister Dan Carlson said Iqaluit elders "were asking for resources from the government to help them pass on information to their family."
Carlson said the government would have resources for consumers, but also to help others talk with their friends and family.
Inuksuk High School special education teacher Grace Main, speaking on her own behalf and not as a school representative, was skeptical.
"I find these strict rules against impaired driving and workplace impairment … it's a mockery. We can't measure impairment," she said. "And the really strict rules about sharing tobacco and young people having tobacco … every day, every day we deal with students with tobacco. A lot of these young people don't have enough money for food and other things, but they have money for smoking."
Main went on to say cannabis is as much a reality at the high school.
"These numbers (you presented) are incredibly low. I think it's really exciting you have such low statistics. They don't match my experience in Iglulik and they don't match my experience with families that I work with every day."
Main suggested cannabis should be restricted to particular areas, keeping in mind children are everywhere. Under the GN's proposed plan, cannabis can be used in the home – and "there may be special considerations in rented units, public housing units, and condos."
But, ultimately, the government sees legalization as an opportunity to reduce harm, restrict access for youth and protect them by making cannabis significantly harder to buy, enhance public awareness regarding health risks, provide access to quality controlled product, and reduce criminal activity, as well as reduce criminal records.
"Even though the Government of Canada is making the decision to legalize cannabis, all provinces and territories have some choices about how it will actually happen," said Shaddock.
The GN released its proposed plan in late January to coincide with public consultations in 11 communities.
Ahead of the public consultation in Iqaluit, Carlson said that so far Nunavummiut are supportive of the government's plan, which is a response to the federal plan to legalize cannabis. That's based on the survey the GN conducted in the fall, and some community consultations already completed.
"There are a lot of questions," he said. "People are concerned, but supportive."
But for the 50 to 60 people gathered at the Anglican Parish Hall the evening of Jan. 13, there was a mixed response to current statistics regarding cannabis use in the territory. Some were shocked one in 10 people use it daily, while some said they think it's likely higher.
Chief medical officer of health Kim Barker's message was clear: cannabis is already in the territory, and legalization means the government can take steps to reduce the harm that comes with illegal use.
"One of the questions we've often heard is that through the process of legalizing a substance we're going to make it more readily available and chances are more Nunavummiut will use it. When you look at the statistic, one in four Nunavummiut, two to three times a week, are already using cannabis," said Barker.
The statistics, she said, indicate that's 12 times higher than the rest of Canada.
"Even though it's illegal, Nunavummiut are accessing cannabis at an alarming rate," said Barker.
She noted the rate of daily usage, at 10 times the national average, is also a significant concern.
With legalization, Barker said the government could ensure cannabis is safe and not laced with other harmful substances such as fentanyl, and target those at risk through education programming. She also noted there's work being done by the department to develop in-territory treatment, which was one concern a few members of the public raised – the territory does not have a treatment centre.
A primary concern: will the government really be able to eradicate black-market cannabis? Other concerns included use in multi-unit dwellings, the need for a greater portion of the 75/25 per cent territorial/federal tax split, cannabis cafes or safe places youth could be barred from, a rigorous education campaign for vulnerable groups, and protection for elders who may be targeted for money.
The government plans to make cannabis accessible to adults via an agency model, meaning through the distribution system already established by the Nunavut Liquor Commission. But the door would also be open for the minister to appoint third parties to sell product. For now, the government is focused on on-line access, with possible work-arounds to the need for credit cards.
The full proposal is available on the GN website.