The legalization of marijuana in Canada in July 2018 gives the federal government an opportunity to bring communities – including Indigenous ones – into this lucrative sector in a big way.
For example, Manitoba’s Opaskwayak Cree Nation recently took a major stake in a medical marijuana company. OCN purchased $3 million in shares in National Access Cannabis, a privately-held company that recently traded publicly for the first time.
Private investors in medical and recreational marijuana are watching intently as the federal government unveils its plans for how pot will be legally grown 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 many non-Indigenous groups – are interested in the emerging industry.
The marijuana market, for the moment, is largely untaxed and unregulated, with the exception of medical marijuana production and sales. The black market controls the recreational pot industry.
Last year, business services firm Deloitte released a major study on legalized marijuana in Canada. It said the total annual impact on the nation’s economy from a legalized market would be $12.7 billion to $22.6 billion.
The study authors point out that pot sales could be as large as hard liquor sales in Canada and perhaps as large as wine sales.
Despite its lucrative nature, some First Nation and non-First Nation communities have already decided they want no part in the legalized drug trade.
Others want to ensure that revenue from legal pot goes directly into programs to help the community, as is their right.
Those communities that want to get into the market in a large way should have the access that many private sector parties are demanding. Among those wanting a piece of the pie are big players in Canada’s pharmaceutical industry, like Shoppers Drug Mart.
Given often alarming poverty rates, particularly in remote locations with few economic prospects, First Nations should receive priority access to the marijuana industry from the federal government. Many Indigenous communities want more opportunities beyond casinos and illegal smoke shacks. The government should give them this opportunity.
This is especially important for provinces such as Manitoba, home to the poorest reserves in Canada.
As well, priority should be given to small non-Aboriginal municipalities when granting industry licences.
The federal government’s goal of ensuring legalized marijuana is carefully regulated is laudable. But that doesn’t 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 Colorado’s private marijuana distribution model, with a made-in-Canada variation that allows for firm regulations on private sales or a mixed public/private system.
Public sector unions are being self-serving when they claim that only government-run outlets can ensure that legalized marijuana is handled safely and kept out of the hands of minors.
The federal government must listen to all entrepreneurs, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are ready to take part in and are investing in this historic economic opportunity. And Indigenous communities deserve broader private sector access.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.