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Lewis Mitchell, CEO of Seven Leaf, stands in the first Indigenous-owned and -operated medical-cannabis production facility in the country. To Lewis Mitchell, Mohawk people owning and operating a facility that produces medical cannabis on their traditional lands makes sense.

For thousands of years, herbs have been at the core of Mohawk medicine and traditional practices. The creation of the Seven Leaf medical-pot factory on their territory, he said, will honour this legacy.

“Our people have always used herbs and plants as medicine,” Mitchell, who is Seven Leaf’s CEO, told iPolitics. “The way we care for plants, the way we use plants for our well-being … that will be continued into what we use to grow the cannabis plant.”

Seven Leaf is Canada’s first Indigenous-owned and -operated medical-cannabis facility in Canada. It lies on traditional Kahniakehaka (Mohawk) territory, just south of Cornwall, Ont. The territory stretches across the Ontario-Quebec provincial border and down into the United States.

On their council website, the Akwesasne Mohawks boast of being called the “most stubborn Native community” in North America because of their “enduring commitment” to their ancient territories and the protection of their Aboriginal rights.

“We take a lot of pride that we are the first,” Mitchell said.

Seven Leaf got its licence to produce medical pot last month, just before recreational cannabis becomes legal on Oct. 17.

Indigenous communities have been reacting differently to legalization, with some, like the Akwesasne Mohawks, embracing the economic opportunities, while others consider banning pot outright, citing concerns with substance abuse and addiction.

A 2017 study from the Canadian Paediatric Society found Indigenous youth are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of cannabis, with nearly two-thirds of Inuit between the ages of 15 and 19, in particular, using cannabis at least once a year. Rates are lower for non-Indigenous teens, with only one-third of Canadians of the same age having tried cannabis.

According to Bill Blair, the minister in charge of the legal cannabis rollout, the government is unsure whether self-governing Indigenous communities will be able to ban the drug from their lands.

“I wish it was as simple as a yes or no,” he told senators at the Aboriginal Rights committee meeting last week. “Those bylaws … could co-exist with the Cannabis Act, but they can’t frustrate its purpose. That would be a matter of law to be determined.”

If a ban is allowed, Mitchell said he would respect each community’s choice. “Some aren’t ready for (cannabis), but that’s fine, that’s their decision,” he continued.

For the Akwesasne Mohawks, their choice is already paying off. Seven Leaf estimates $3 million will be injected directly into the community, not including the growth they expect over the next three years.

But it was a long road to where Seven Leaf is today.

The group of Akwesasne Mohawks first launched its application process for a medical licence in 2014 after changes to medical-cannabis access were introduced under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The new regulations shifted medical-pot production from home growth to licensed commercial growth. The Akwesasne group followed the changes, and decided to take a leap of faith.“Our partners said, ‘Why not us? Why not Mohawks?’” Mitchell recalls.The group then sat down with its local band council, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, to teach the chief and council members about the health and safety regulations that would govern their business.After council gave them the green light, the Seven Leaf founders consulted the 13,000 Akwesasronon in the community. Mitchell said they embraced the idea with open arms.That initiated a “very arduous” process to become licensed producers under Health Canada regulations, Mitchell said.According to the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations Act, all applications […]

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