NWT residents are talking about cannabis without knowing much if anything about the substance, say MLAs who conducted a two-week tour of communities.

Three MLAs who held public hearings across the territory say nobody gave residents any facts about cannabis, leaving locals uneducated and ill-equipped to provide reasoned feedback.

They said both the territorial and federal governments had failed to educate residents in time for the legalization of cannabis this summer, creating a “great divide” between Elders and younger community members.

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“We as the government have not done a good job of educating people,” Shane Thompson, the MLA for Nahendeh, told Mornings at the Cabin.

“What are we doing with the older generation? How are we educating people about this product? We’re not doing that. I think the government has failed.”

‘Letting students down’

Two sets of public consultations have taken place as the territory races to draft legislation governing the legalization of cannabis to meet a tight federal timeline.

In the fall of 2017, the territorial government visited a number of communities and also invited feedback online.

For the past two weeks, regular MLAs followed that with their own whirlwind tour of the territory’s communities – ostensibly to scrutinize the proposed legislation with residents’ feedback, though MLAs say in reality they spent much of their time trying to educate people about the substance itself and the basic issues.

There is no evidence any easily understood scientific research, or qualified health workers equipped with basic facts about the cannabis, were provided to community members during either set of consultations.

“We went to St Pat’s School and a student said he felt very well-informed about cannabis. He said his source of information was the internet,” said Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green.

“I asked if he had learned anything about it at school and he had learned not a thing about cannabis, nor alcohol, nor tobacco.

“We’re letting students down by not providing, through the schools, evidence-based information.”

Kieron Testart, the MLA for Kam Lake, added: “We have many jurisdictions in the world the GNWT could have looked at – Colorado has made many mistakes and corrected those mistakes. We’ve got jurisdictions we could have looked at, seen what works best, and then started our consultations.

“They sat on their hands and waited till the federal legislation was drafted. The government consultations wrapped in November and they only did nine communities. This is something that’s affecting our culture, our economy, our criminal justice system.

“There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm from the Premier or Cabinet on this policy issue.”

‘Myths about cannabis’

In a speech last year, justice minister Louis Sebert said the territory “had to wait until the federal government released its legislation to fully understand the proposed framework for legalizing cannabis and what things the GNWT would be responsible for” – though he added the GNWT was already conducting research prior to this.

Sebert stressed the importance of making sure “that our plans respect … concerns and take the views and opinions of NWT residents into account,” and promised “ongoing education and awareness campaigns.”

In October 2017, the territorial government released a “what we heard” report summarizing feedback received from its fall consultations. The document shows NWT residents made the need for public education clear.

“Significant support was expressed for government spending on public awareness and education,” the document’s executive summary reads.

“The GNWT must work to dispel myths about cannabis use and ensure a balanced approach focussing on harm reduction and safe use to mitigate the risks of cannabis consumption.”

However, the document suggests the territory saw this as a priority only once cannabis is legalized and not in the lead-up while preparing legislation. Residents attending those consultations were asked a range of questions about their views on cannabis, but were never directly asked how much they actually knew about the substance, its benefits, and its drawbacks.

Learning more

Green divided the residents she heard from in April into “a group of people currently using cannabis who don’t see why we’re on tour; a group of people who have seen the devastation alcohol has caused in their communities and they are very scared of cannabis; and this middle group of people who want to know how to protect their children and keep them away from cannabis smoke, cannabis plants, all these cannabis incarnations.

“There is a real generational divide in the approach,” she said.

Even the politicians themselves admitted they had been scrambling to understand cannabis and its effects as they work on legislation.

“THC, CBD, I thought they were letters,” said Thompson, referring to acronyms for tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol respectively, which are chemical compounds found within cannabis.

“You’re learning all this stuff,” he continued. “I’ve learned more about cannabis in the last three months than I have ever learned.”

The federal government had initially anticipated legalizing cannabis by July 2018, but that timeline is now believed to have slipped slightly.

Testart, who ran unsuccessfully to become the NWT’s Liberal candidate in the 2015 federal election, said “friends in Ottawa” had told him the new date would be some time in August.

Much of the feedback received by MLAs in April’s consultations was negative, with many residents expressing serious concerns about potential impacts on communities and suggesting legalization be delayed.