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How First Nations Are Dealing With Thriving, but Illegal, Cannabis Stores

In Ontario, where you can only legally buy weed from the province’s online store, dispensaries on First Nations are largely operating without interference from the state.

by Colin Graf
Dec 20 2018, 3:34pm

Images courtesy of author. 

It’s an autumn Saturday afternoon near the Lake Huron shore in south-western Ontario, but the roadside gravel parking lot is full. The occupants walk up to the small building, survey the goods behind the display cases, drop their cash on the counter, and leave with the “Medicine of the Earth.”

One of the employees extols the virtues of a certain cannabis brand. “It’s really pretty this one,” he says. “I smoked some about 11 this morning and I’m just coming down now.”

The shop’s staff aren’t concerned about saying the owner, Hubert George of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, has been “providing this service to the community” for decades.

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Although stores like the Medicine of the Earth aren’t allowed in Ontario, where the only legal place to buy recreational cannabis for now is through the province’s website, no one here is hiding. The province’s online retailer, the Ontario Cannabis Store, has gotten off to a rocky start with product shortages and slow deliveries. Physical retail storefronts are expected to open next spring, but many Indigenous cannabis entrepreneurs aren’t waiting.

Medicine of the Earth operates in a kind of limbo, on the edge of the former Ipperwash military base where First Nations man Dudley George was shot to death by police in the 1990s. The land is scheduled to be returned to the nearby Kettle & Stony Point band, but it’s hard to say who’s in charge right now. The Department of National Defence (DND) told VICE it’s aware of the Medicine of the Earth shop and officials are working closely with Kettle Point and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) “on an approach for resolving this matter.”

At the Oneida of the Thames settlement, less than an hour’s drive from Medicine of the Earth, Oren Doxtator has opened “Oneida Organics,” a shop featuring smokables, edibles, CBD oils and salves, and even CBD for pets with pain. Doxtator, an Oneida engineer who owns a pipeline inspection business, regularly posts product updates to the Oneida Organics Facebook page.

Living on his wife’s home nation of Tyendinaga, between Belleville and Kingston, Doxtator has seen the emergence of what’s been dubbed the “Green Mile” there, with around 40 pot shops for a community of around 4,000. “Some people are making $80,000 a year up there,” he tells VICE. “It’s become self-sustaining now and is creating good-paying jobs.” Doxtator’s operation at Oneida itself employs 15 people. He estimates 80% of his customers are off-rez, mainly from the nearby city of London.

Many customers say they get a better buzz from the First Nations’ products than the cannabis from the provincial store. Others complain about poor availability through the OCS. There’s a lot of talk about the OCS needing to get its act together.

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Rick from Missouri (left) with his friend Dave from London, ON, needed something from Medicine of the Earth for a sore back after a cold day in the fishing boat.

While George, Doxtator and other dispensary owners like to emphasize how many people come to them for medical reasons, an informal survey of customers at Medicine of the Earth seems to bear that out.

Rick, a Canadian living in Missouri, is back in the area for a fishing trip with his buddies, including Dave, from London. Hoping his baggie of “White Ghost” will relieve his back pain after a cold day on the boat, Rick tells me, “I love this stuff. It’s more effective than the OCS.” A woman from a nearby town tells me she is buying cannabis for an epileptic child.

Still, medicinal or not, Ontario laws say this just isn’t allowed. So why are these dispensaries popping up all over Ontario First Nations and why aren’t they being shut down by cops?

Some Indigenous people simply say Ontario laws don’t apply to their lands since First Nations have their relationship directly with the Crown and its representatives, the federal government.

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Cannabis strains at Medicine of the Earth.

“They can’t bring their laws onto the reserve and they know it,” says George. Still, he’s trying to stay within some provincial rules. “We’re staying within the guidelines,” not selling to youth under 19, and not selling more than 30 grams to a customer. “They don’t want to be charged with trafficking,” he says. Over at Oneida Organics, Doxtator also believes his operation just doesn’t fall under Ontario laws. Still, he also says his employees check IDs and only sell to those 19 and older. “We encourage people not to smoke and drive too.”

But George insists he’s not going to pay taxes to the province or feds “and all that kind of shit.”

“We’ll never give in to that, so there’s no sense in them trying. It will always be a legal battle, it will always be a fight between us and the government, just like tobacco,” he says, pulling out a wad of $20 bills for the builders who are putting the finishing touches on his new shop. HIs profits have paid for the building, which will be powered by solar panels, as he isn’t being allowed to tie in to the electrical power at the former army camp.

He’s not worried about the police harassing him, even though he and his wife were arrested and fined for possessing and growing in 2015. Their defence lawyer told the court they made no secret of what they were doing, as the Medicine of the Earth sign was displayed outside their Kettle Point reserve home. George still fumes about that, saying treaty rights allow him to use the land “at my pleasure, like fishing.” The judge didn’t agree, and fined the couple $300 each.

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Hubert George outside the trailer.

Still, post-legalization, George seems right not to worry about the police. While there have been sporadic shutdowns of dispensaries on First Nations during the year or so before Oct. 17, that doesn’t appear to be happening since then, despite Ontario’s retail cannabis prohibition.

When asked whether the OPP has been involved in any enforcement of Ontario’s new cannabis rules on First Nations, Sgt. Carolle Dionne evaded the question, saying in an email the OPP “works closely with all partners” including the OPP Indigenous Policing Bureau (IPB), the Provincial Liaison Team (PLT), and First Nations Police ”to enforce the laws pertaining to illegal cannabis and to address any concerns that relate to investigations or enforcement activities.” The provincial spokesperson for the OPP said police will “continue to work with all stakeholders who may be affected and maintain open and transparent lines of communication regarding any enforcement action.”

Regarding Medicine of the Earth’s operation, a local OPP media officer said the force is aware of the shop and doesn’t comment on investigations, or even say whether or not they are investigating a matter until, or if, charges are laid.

“Currently dispensaries are illegal,” says Jacob Taylor, head of the Pontiac Group, an consulting firm helping First Nations develop plans and policies around cannabis. Taylor hasn’t heard of any shops being shut down by authorities in Ontario since legalization. At least one First Nation has asked operators to put up the shutters, but there have been “no forced closures,” Taylor believes.

OK...but what about Ontario’s Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney, who’s in charge of law enforcement in the province? In October Mulroney said the only legal seller is the OCS, and other unlicensed dispensaries and production facilities are illegal. However, when asked by VICE if the province’s cannabis laws would be enforced, Mulroney’s spokesman Brian Gray gave no clear answer, saying by email “enforcement is the responsibility of the local police service, including First Nations police services. Police services operate independently from the Crown.”

Gray referred to the federal law, saying under the new Cannabis Act people selling weed illegally face fines up to $250,000 and/or up to two years in prison for first convictions, while corporations can be fined up to $1,000,000.

Many of Canada’s Indigenous people have been quietly moving into the cannabis industry for the last few years in various ways, says Taylor, with many investing treaty or land claim funds into cannabis operations. At least 14 growers across Canada have First Nations as partial owners, he says. The business has grown so big that the first National Indigenous Cannabis & Hemp Conference took place Nov. 16-19 at the Tsuut’ina First Nation near Calgary.

One of those investing is the Chippewas of the Thames, next to the Oneida settlement near London, Ontario. Chief Myeengun Henry won’t say how much his Council has invested in the Manitoba grower Garden Variety, a partnership with cannabis companies Avana Canada Inc., MediPharm Labs, Native Roots Dispensary, and a Manitoba First Nation. He’ll only say the amount was “comfortable for us,” but Henry admits he’s waiting anxiously to see if that investment will soon pay dividends.

As the partnership is one of only four licensed in Manitoba, “we think we’ll find out pretty fast. We should be able to get some revenue from that to fix our roads and do other things we need to do,” he tells VICE in an interview. “It’s simply a business deal that we ventured into and has nothing to do with cannabis sales” on reserve, he adds.

While the cannabis sellers may be raking in the cash right now, chiefs and band councils are trying to figure out how to respond to the arrival of the illegal dispensaries on their lands. While several chiefs approached for this article did not reply, Taylor claims chiefs and councillors have told him about the confusion and frustration the Green Rush is causing for them.

Some band leaders see cannabis as a source of money for much-needed infrastructure and social development. However, they’re finding it hard to figure out what their people actually want; investment, dispensaries, or, maybe neither, Taylor tells VICE while on the road in northern Ontario. He’s just left one of 250 or so community meetings about cannabis he and his partner are helping chiefs and councils host.

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Edibles at medicine of the earth.

The Chippewas of the Thames recently held one of those meetings, aided by Taylor and his partner Jonathan Araujo. Chief Henry and councillors wanted to explain to their community why they are investing in the Manitoba operation and ask members about the future of cannabis on their land. Henry says it can be a bit of a hard sell to older members. “They sometimes have trouble accepting that this is all OK today.”

Elders tend to look at cannabis as ”bad smoke,” while young people tend to think of it as “cool smoke”, says Taylor. He says many young First Nations people feel a connection to the celebration of weed in hip-hop culture, because they feel the share the experience of the ”ghettoization of minority populations” with black Americans.

Chief Henry and his council at Chippewas of the Thames have decided to stop shipments from the Ontario Cannabis Store on the reserve. “Provincial sales of cannabis are not welcome on the territory at this time. We want an agreement with Ontario that results in the province stepping away from assertions of jurisdiction on our territory. It is our place and our responsibility to regulate how businesses, including cannabis, are carried out on this reserve, and not the province”, he said in an Oct. news release.

”We don’t want Ontario to do something we can do for ourselves. We are actually building our own cannabis law right now,” Henry told VICE in an interview.

He fears First Nations could become the main outlet for organized crime to keep selling illegal weed in Ontario, in the same way that contraband cigarette sales have sky-rocketed on reserves during the last decade. “We need to look no further than the tobacco sales on reserve in Ontario to see where we could end up with cannabis if the province and First Nations do not come together to address this,” Henry said.

The Attorney General’s office supports that idea, says spokesperson Gray. Ontario will discuss ways to collaborate with First Nations about developing their own approach to private cannabis sales. The federal law allows the province to make agreements with First Nations communities related to cannabis regulation, he says.

First Nations can opt out of private stores by way of band council resolution, says Gray. Also, any store located on First Nations lands will require Council approval before a retail license will be issued next year, he adds.

Banning the government isn’t about cornering the market on pot for his small community, says Henry, but more about taxation. “We want to tax it,” Henry states clearly.

Allowing Indigenous communities taxation powers over cannabis will make it “very simple” to avoid the same mess as with contraband cigarettes, according to Taylor. His partner, Jonathon Araujo, has even met one dispensary operator who offered to donate to his First Nation in place of taxes, but the leaders “don’t know how to accept it. There’s no system within the community,” that allows that contribution.

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Barb Bressette prepares your goodies, or if you prefer, your treatment, at Medicine of the Earth. She believes cannabis' healing properties are very real.

It’s no surprise First Nations can be uncertain about how to handle cannabis sales, says Araujo. From the viewpoint of a lands’ administrator, ”you’re not going to like the wear and tear on your roads,” from visitors flooding the reserve to buy the stuff. How are you supposed to maintain the roads when you’re not getting any tax money?” he asks. Officials are not sure what to do when people are erecting smoke shops without permission, “taking up land, precious water and precious electricity,” says Araujo.

On the other hand, a reserve’s economic director may welcome more visitors, more spending, and more jobs, he says, but educators will be worried about cannabis being sold openly around youths, with no money available for teaching them about the pros, cons, and laws about weed.

Back at Medicine of the Earth, employee Barb Bressette, the daughter of a former Kettle Point Chief, muses about her work. She develops an almost evangelical tone when talking about what is, for her, much more than a business. “I can’t believe how many people have been helped (by cannabis). So many people are trying to get off opioids and they’re coming here for help. This plant has brought a lot of healing. It truly is the medicine of the earth,” she says softly.

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