Thunderbird Partnership Foundation


Cannabis For Harm Reduction

Regulated cannabis under medical supervision can be helpful in addressing opioid addiction, by providing relief from withdrawal of opioid addiction or for pain management. Recent research on cannabis suggests there may be a beneficial link to specific types of pain management.

From an Indigenous context, Elders across the country from various linguistic cultures have said that cannabis prepared in a culturally appropriate way has been used in two specific ways; as a topical solution to treat pain, such as arthritis and within ceremony to lessen symptoms of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. It is not smoked or ingested.

Understanding Respect For Medicines

Elders caution the way people interact with medicines, teaching that when the medicine is abused or misused it weakens the medicine’s ability to work; that it not be used for self-medication. It is crucial that the spirit of the cannabis plant is respected both during preparation and utilization of the medicine in the form of reciprocity, for example making a request to the spirit of the plant for its medicine.
Facts about the Legal-Recreational Use of Cannabis

  • In Canada the legal age for use is 18; provinces, territories, and reserves can increase this age.
  • Potency of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is better controlled than illegal cannabis.
  • Laws control what chemicals are used to grow the plant to increase safety for use.
  • Laws ensure no harmful additives (unlike street cannabis which can include fentanyl for example).
  • Laws control who can buy or sell cannabis at strictly controlled legal dispensaries. (Government of Canada, 2017).

Risks of using cannabis


  • has possible negative effects when used daily or almost daily, before the age of 25 and when used in large amounts.
  • those with a history of addiction or mental health challenges should avoid cannabis use.
  • those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should avoid cannabis use.

For ways to reconnect with Indigenous culture and strengths visit Thunderbird Partnership Foundation’s youth website at


  • First Nations adults are at risk of addiction due to the lasting effects of the attempted destruction of cultures (colonization) and the trauma that has been passed down from grandparents to parents to youth (intergenerational trauma).
  • Misuse puts us, our families and communities at greater risk of harm.
  • However, reconnecting with Indigenous culture has been proven to be a protective factor in the recovery from addictions and mental health challenges.

(Thunderbird, 2017).

How is cannabis ingested?

(Government of Canada, 2018).

(Borgelt, L. Franson, K. Nussbaum, A. Wang, G.,2013)


  • most common method of non-medical use
  • involves inhalation by smoking a joint, pipe or bong
  • releases toxic chemicals (about 50% of THC converts to smoke, the rest is lost by heat or smoke that is not inhaled)
  • effects felt within minutes


  • heated air is drawn through the cannabis, creating a fine spray to be inhaled
  • releases cannabinoids and fewer toxic chemicals than smoking
  • increased THC absorption compared to smoking
  • may have less respiratory symptoms and negative effects on lungs compared to smoking
  • potential benefits for treatment of acute symptoms, for appetite stimulation and nausea relief due to rapid absorption


  • can be added to cookies, brownies, consumed as teas and infusions.
  • other forms include cannabis-based butters, extracts, tinctures, topicals, lozenges, gummies.
  • high-potency cannabis extracts (concentrates of 60% THC or greater) increase the risk of cannabis poisoning. Regular use increases the risk of dependence, cannabis use disorder and mental health disturbances more so than using dried cannabis. (CCSA,2020)
  • effects are delayed (1-4 hours) but last longer (6-8 hours) compared to smoking.
  • due to the delay in the onset of effects edible products increase the risk of over-consumption and possible intoxication. (CCSA,2020)
  • The health impacts associated with long-term use are not known at this time. (CCSA,2020).

Within your First Nation community there may be members who use cannabis in a way that is not regulated or advised. It is important to share information about cannabis use so that individuals can make informed decisions.  If someone you know chooses to use cannabis, when possible, take a supportive community approach to addressing challenges and support using culturally appropriate tools when available. (Thunderbird, 2017)

Is cannabis addictive?
Yes. According to the Addictions Management Information System

(AMIS), 89 per cent of youth ages 12–17 entering treatment frequently use cannabis.

But youth are able to counteract the potential harms of cannabis by incorporating supportive learning environments and culture throughout treatment, as shown through the increase in school attendance after treatment. (Thunderbird, 2017).

Cannabis and Focusing on Our Strengths 

The FNMWC framework provides an understanding that First Nations peoples should be reminded of strengths and resilience and how these gifts can be alternatives to cannabis use and reduce potential harms. We can call on our strengths when making an informed decision about cannabis. Understanding our own strengths and areas that may be improved can build self-confidence and hope for the future.

Learn to connect with culture instead of using cannabis

  • sit with an Elder to learn and have tea
  • take part in a talking circle
  • if you are feeling overwhelmed take part in a cleansing/sweat lodge ceremony
  • if you feel bored take part in a cultural activity or social or ceremonial practice
  • spend time on the land
  • learn how to harvest and use natural foods and medicines

Cannabis and your brain

Immediate effects

  • brighter colours
  • altered sense of time
  • mood swings
  • inability to move properly
  • difficulty thinking
  • difficulty problem solving
  • impaired memory
  • hallucinations (in high doses)
  • delusions (in high doses)
  • psychosis (in high doses)

Short-term effects

  • movement
  • judgement
  • reward
  • memory
  • coordination
  • sensations
  • vision

Long-term effects of regular cannabis use (especially during brain development)

  • attention and concentration declines
  • memory loss
  • learning impaired
  • cognitive impairment
  • can affect mental health and increase risk of suicide.
  • intelligence: when people started smoking heavily in their teens and continued into adulthood, they lost an average of eight IQ points.
  • lung damage similar to the effects of tobacco smoke.
  • dopamine levels lower in the brain causing lack of motivation (Thunderbird, 2019)

Cannabis use and pregnancy

  • Cannabis use is not recommended during pregnancy; may affect a child’s brain development, behavioural and mental health
  • Babies born to mothers who consumed cannabis during pregnancy have lower birth weight and could have responding behaviours such as impulsivity.
  • Cannabis use during pregnancy may increase the child’s risk of using substances in later years.

How does cannabis use effect breastmilk?

  • Cannabinoids (THC) concentrate in breastmilk and can be transferred to the newborn.
  • Babies who have been exposed to cannabis via breastmilk may have trouble latching on to the breast and may have effects of being drowsy.
  • Smoking cannabis can expose the newborn to second-hand smoke. (CEWH, 2016).

Harm Reduction

Medical cannabis is potentially a safer alternative to opioids when feasible, as this reduces the overall harms associated with opioids (an over-dose on cannabis on its own is non-fatal, whereas thousands of people die of fatal opioid overdoses). (Kanate et al. 2015).

We cannot always change the environment or the influences around us. However, we can change our relationships with self, family, community, and Creation. A healthy relationship with self includes unconditional love, forgiveness, and constructive self-talk.

Ways to reduce potential harms caused by recreational cannabis use

  • If you do choose to use, start with a low dose and use infrequently.
  • Only use cannabis from a trusted source to reduce the likelihood of harmful contaminants.
  • Avoid accidental poisoning by controlled use and not using alone.
  • Avoid mixing with other drugs or alcohol. (Thunderbird, 2017).

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