With the federal government on the verge of creating a multi-billion dollar legal marijuana industry, Brian Marquis worries aboriginal people will be left high and dry.
Marquis, 57, is a patient at the Legacy 420 dispensary on the Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near Kingston, Ont. And after nearly three years of frequenting the business, he says he has seen the financial potential and medical benefits of cannabis.
Now he wants to see storefront dispensaries sprout up in reserves across Canada: providing an economic engine that will help lift indigenous people out of poverty and, he says, provide an antidote to Canada’s opioid addiction crisis.
One of Marquis’s Quebec associates told the Montreal Gazette there is interest in opening dispensaries in the Kanesatake Mohawk territory as well as on Algonquin and Innu reserves.
This may seem like a pipe dream, but Marquis recently took steps to make this a reality. On Monday, Marquis signed legal papers incorporating the National Indigenous Medical Cannabis Association — a group aimed at regulating the sale of medical marijuana within Canada’s indigenous territories.
The organization met in Tyendinaga last week to elect representatives from 10 provinces, establish bylaws and schedule its next board election in 2022.
“We’re not waiting for the federal government on this, we’re going to do what we have to do,” said Marquis, who was elected president of NIMCA’s Ontario chapter. “Canada can do its own thing, we’re a sovereign people on sovereign land. They’re not going to stop us.”
About 130,000 people buy cannabis through Health Canada’s medical marijuana program, ordering it directly from one of 40 federally licensed producers. Experts say it’s these licensed producers — some of which are valued north of $1 billion — that will come to dominate the recreational market when the federal government legalizes it in 2018.
As it stands, the legal system works against the dispensary model that Marquis’s group advocates. Under the Criminal Code, it’s illegal to sell medical marijuana out of a storefront.
But Marquis argues that the Mohawks’ status as a sovereign people — codified in colonial-era documents like the Jay Treaty, Simcoe Deed and Two Row Wampum Treaty — shields dispensaries from criminal prosecution, federal regulation and taxation.
This could prove problematic if the dispensaries openly court a non-indigenous clientele, one police source told the Montreal Gazette. And while Legacy 420 enjoys a good working relationship with the Tyendinaga band council, there’s no guarantee this will be the case on other territories.
“If it’s the will of the people to have a dispensary here, then so be it,” said Serge Simon, Grand Chief of the Kanesatake Mohawk band council. “I think it’s something that would be best regulated through band council. You don’t want this to become a free-for-all. One thing’s for sure, nothing happens without the community’s say so.”
Clifton Nicholas is NIMCA’s Quebec representative and a lifelong resident of Kanesatake. Nicholas says a dispensary in Kanesatake would be a net plus for the Mohawk community of 1,600. The 45-year-old says he’s reaching out to other indigenous communities to recruit new members into NIMCA — which will set quality-control standards and other regulations within the industry.
After electing a provisional board of governors for the Quebec chapter, Nicholas says he’ll register it as a corporation. After that, he’ll work on securing financial backing for a dispensary on the North Shore Mohawk territory.
“This isn’t a cash grab, we’re going to be fully above board, fully regulated and the money’s going right back into the community,” said Nicholas, a documentary filmmaker. “About two years ago, we had a young man here die of an opiate overdose and many here struggle with addiction. I see cannabis as a way of curbing that opiate use.”
An American study, released Monday, found that hospitals in states with legal recreational marijuana are seeing a 23 per cent drop in the number of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction. The study also suggests a 13 per cent drop in treatment for opioid overdoses.
Marquis says it was cannabis that helped him taper off painkillers after he slipped on a patch of ice and broke his back 12 years ago. At the peak of his opioid use, Marquis was popping four 80 mg pills of OxyContin every day.
“I went to my doctor, I said, ‘Doc, I think I’m gonna just quit these things, they’re not really working for me,’ ” said Marquis. “He laughed, he slapped his knee and he said, ‘Brian, you will never get off those.’ After that I got my medical licence to use cannabis and never took a pill again. It wasn’t perfect, I’m not one of these people who claims it cures everything, but it helped me with the withdrawal.”
Nicholas compares the potential of cannabis dispensaries to that of the aboriginal tobacco trade — a billion dollar market dominated by the Mohawks in upstate New York, Quebec and Ontario. Through a series of court victories, Canada has recognized the Mohawks’ right to manufacture and sell cigarettes on-reserve without charging sales tax to other aboriginal people.
In reality, however, many non-indigenous Canadians take advantage of the tax loophole and buy cigarettes at a heavily discounted rate on reserves. This gave rise to a business that, while it operates in a legal grey area, has afforded the Mohawks a level of economic independence enjoyed by few other nations across Canada.
But Nicholas also offers a word of caution.
“With tobacco, there’s this trap of just making money and not necessarily giving it back to the community,” he said. “Cannabis has to be about the creating something sustainable, something where we reinvest the profits in our languages, our culture and traditions. It’s an industry of the future, it’s something that’s breaking new ground in the medical field, but it’s also something that can help us preserve our past.”