Marijuana Market Can Help First Nations if Done Right

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

With the expected government legalization of marijuana in Canada by July 2018, Ottawa has an opportunity – if done right –  to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities into this lucrative sector in a big way.

For example, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) in Manitoba recently took a major stake in a medical marijuana company. OCN purchased $3 million worth of shares in National Access Cannabis, a privately-held company that recently traded publicly for the first time.

Right now, private investors in medical and later recreational marijuana are closely watching Ottawa as it unveils its plans for how legal pot will be manufactured and sold in Canada.

OCN is certainly not the only Indigenous community expressing a keen interest in the legal pot industry. The National Post reported in mid-July that 100 First Nation communities and business interests, and of course many non-Indigenous interests as well, are interested in the emerging industry.

Many observers – including of course Indigenous ones – astutely point out that at present it is largely the untaxed and unregulated black market that takes advantage of the recreational pot industry.

Last year, business services firm Deloitte released a major study that looked at the economic impact of legalized marijuana in Canada.

The total impact for Canada’s economy from a legalized market would amount to between $12.7 billion to $22.6 billion annually.

The study authors point out that pot sales could be as large as hard liquor sales in Canada or even as large as wine sales.

Despite its lucrative nature, some First Nation and non-First Nation communities have already decided that they want no part in the legalized drug trade. Some want to ensure that revenue from legal pot go directly into programs to help the community. That is their right. For those communities who want to get into the market in a large way, they should have the access that many private sector parties are demanding. Canada’s pharmaceutical industry – such as big players like Shopper’s Drug Mart – are seeking valuable market access in the trade.

First Nations – especially those in remote locations with few economic prospects – should receive priority access from the federal government, given alarming rates of poverty.  Many Indigenous communities desire more opportunities beyond casinos and illegal smoke shacks. The government should give them this opportunity. Also, small non-Aboriginal municipalities should also be considered in this.

This is especially important for provinces such as Manitoba, where we have the poorest reserves in Canada.

The federal government’s goal of ensuring legalized marijuana is carefully regulated is laudable, of course, but that does not have to mean that marijuana is only sold to customers in provincially-run distributors. They can play a role, for sure, but they should not crowd out the private sector.

The feds can follow the liberal lead of Colorado in terms of private marijuana distribution, but adopt a made-in-Canada strong role for a regulated private model or perhaps a mixed public/private model.

It is self-serving and fallacious when public sector unions claim that only government-run liquor stores and other government-owned outlets can ensure that legalized marijuana is handled safely and is out of the hands of minors.

Ottawa must listen to all entrepreneurs regardless if they are Indigenous and non-Indigenous,  who are moving now and investing already in this historic economic opportunity. The government must give Indigenous communities and the broader private sector access.