First Nations take the right approach to cannabis sales on reserve

There has been a great deal of controversy among certain quarters over the recent moratoriums enacted by Island First Nations when it comes to how to deal with the retail sale of cannabis within their boundaries, but should you ask many municipal leaders how they felt about the recent railroading they experienced when faced with a deadline over whether to opt in or opt out of allowing retail sales in their community, you might discover a remarkable amount of envy.

Municipalities were basically faced with a fait accompli by the Ford government. Either opt in and share in the (potential) spoils provided by the profits from the sale of pot in the province, or opt out and face the possibility of being locked out of a source of revenue. Municipalities had a very short window in which to make their stance known and in the current climate of uncertainty (critical provincial funding from the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) is still up in the air even as municipal budget planning is well underway—most anticipate that the current “efficiency review” of OMPF will result in dramatically reduced funding flowing into municipal coffers) the potential loss of a source of revenue should the wrong decision be made likely swayed many.

The federal government has made it clear that the issue of the sale of cannabis on reserves will be up to the individual First Nations, but many First Nations are taking a long and consultative route to making a decision and in the absence of a decision, provincial regulations are holding sway with law enforcement agencies—Native and non-Native. It’s a stopgap measure and one that errs on the side of caution.

Realistically, there will not be a (legal) non-Native retail outlet available on Manitoulin (or any rural area for that matter) as the few licences that have been awarded by lottery in Ontario are reserved for larger centres. The only two in the North are reserved for communities of 50,000-plus. Small town Ontario need not apply for quite some time. There is little economic rush or pressure on the leadership of the First Nations and, as is their tradition when it comes to such major social decisions, the leadership of the First Nations are generally taking the long way round by ensuring that there is strong community buy-in to any decision on the matter.

Even given several months of consultations, there will not be a (legal) retail outlet for cannabis locally for at least a year after that. Like the rest of rural Ontario, those seeking to buy legal cannabis will have to go online to the government store and mail order their pot. The rest will likely stick to their current supplier. Since the government stores seem to be going through a dry period, many of those who would purchase their pot or edibles legally will likely be forced to remain in the black market anyway.

Premier Doug Ford may have the experience (and some might say bravado) to claim he would be a better dope retailer than his predecessor, but reality seems to be proving that boast to be somewhat hollow.

In the meantime, First Nations councils are holding extensive community consultations and education sessions (Sheguiandah and Wiikwemkoong have recently held such sessions), taking their time to come up with an approach that will have broad community buy-in when the relevant band council resolutions are passed. There will be those advocates who will insist that the sky is falling or that cannabis is the wonder solution to opioid addiction in the community (oddly, cannabis has always and likely will continue to be at least as available as opioids in just about all our communities—you would think the problem would have solved itself already if it was that easy), but there are many municipal leaders in this province who, given the choice, would have preferred to take the traditional Anishinabe route to making this decision rather than the two-track railroad they faced earlier this month.

Kudos to those First Nations leaders who have decided not to be rushed into making a decision on what to many in their communities is a revolutionary change. When decisions on which fork in the road to take on policy matters is unduly rushed, it can take a long time to get back on the right track. Best to get it right the first time round—that’s the one with the prettiest of views.