It's been a full year since cannabis was legalized, but Mi'kmaw dispensary owners in Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia still have no clarity on the legality of their businesses.
First Nations were left out of the cannabis regulatory and revenue-sharing regime when the federal Cannabis Act gave provincial and territorial governments control over the distribution and retail end, while Health Canada oversees the licensing of commercial production.
Last year, chiefs from across Nova Scotia gave the provincial government a year to consider its options for working with First Nations, to keep prices and products at retail cannabis stores on reserves consistent with existing retailers.
Currently, the only company authorized to sell cannabis products in Nova Scotia is still the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC), at one of 12 locations across the province.
Since cannabis was legalized, up to 10 independent dispensaries have opened in Millbrook First Nation near Truro. Some of them are directly across the street from an RCMP detachment.
Stuck in 'legal limbo'
Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade sent a letter earlier this month to the Nova Scotia premier.
In the letter, Gloade reminds the premier of his disappointment that the province's cannabis legislation and regulations were drafted with "insufficient consideration" of opportunities for Mi'kmaw communities, and that he'd previously warned the province that members of his community would likely enter the "illicit cannabis trade."
"The RCMP have not taken any direct action to shutter these shops," the letter reads, "despite the fact that not a single one of these retailers is provincially licensed."
In the letter, Gloade said the community was in "legal limbo," and called the situation "untenable." He said that members are concerned that the entire community is missing out on the potential economic benefits, which are being accessed by individual dispensary operators only.
"Unfortunately, as a band we are presently unable to access a safe, controlled supply of cannabis," the letter reads. "However, I think this is a simple fix, should the province choose to act."
Gloade couldn't be reached for comment.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia's department of Justice confirmed Gloade's letter had been received.
"We continue to keep an open dialogue and have met with First Nation communities to discuss the sale of cannabis," said the email.
"What is happening in Millbrook is obviously a concern for Chief Gloade – and for us as well. Illicit dispensaries are illegal and have untested product that could be unsafe. We understand RCMP is aware of the illegal operations."
'The spin-offs are great'
A 1999 Supreme Court decision in the case of Donald Marshall Jr., an eel fisherman from Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia, affirmed that First Nations people on the East Coast had a right to hunt, gather and fish to earn "a moderate livelihood," but didn't clarify what the phrase meant. The ruling judge added in a further decision that it wasn't to be an open-ended accumulation of wealth, but the modern equivalent of trading for necessities to survive.
Millbrook band member Darren Marshall is the spokesperson for The Flower Barn, a "medical remedies" cannabis dispensary owned by his son, who is also named Darren Marshall. He said that opening the shop was a necessity for him, as he was unemployed at the time.
"I'm entitled under the treaty to make a moderate living, and to get off social assistance," Marshall said.
"It's just not about getting people wrecked up and down the sidewalks. It's about helping people ... I'll help myself, help other people."
The Flower Barn opened in August, and has since employed four other Millbrook band members. Marshall said that business has been steady, and he estimated that at least half of the customers come from communities surrounding the Millbrook reserve.
In his opinion, Marshall said, the independent dispensaries are benefiting the whole community, as they're stimulating business that didn't exist in Millbrook before cannabis was legalized.
"People are getting off of social [assistance]. People are stopping to buy gas, so you know the spin-offs are great. It's bringing traffic here, so I don't see why they wouldn't want the business," Marshall said.
"Our leader sent a letter to the premier saying to shut us down or bust us," Marshall said.
"[The band council] really don't know what they're doing up there."
'No different than selling peaches'
Brad Metlin-Rendall, who is non-Indigenous from nearby Debert, N.S., said he purchased his first "legal" cannabis from Marshall's shop because he heard there were good deals and because he likes to support small businesses.
Metlin-Rendall said he recognizes that purchasing from the provincial cannabis retailer brings revenue to the province and back to Nova Scotians, but said he's choosing to purchase products in Millbrook out of principle.
"I believe everybody should have that right [to a moderate livelihood], but especially Indigenous peoples," he said. "Because that right was taken away from them ... we owe Indigenous peoples, there's no doubt about that."
Metlin-Rendall said he thinks because cannabis is a natural product, they should be allowed to make a living from it.
"It's no different than selling peaches now," he said.
RCMP conducting 'routine checkpoints'
Darren Marshall said The Flower Barn was served notice on Sept. 16 by the Millbrook RCMP detachment that the business was alleged to be in violation of the provincial cannabis control act for being an unauthorized cannabis seller.
He said he's met with officers and that the business has complied with their recommendations for his operation. He said employees have been checking identification to enforce age restrictions, excluding cannabis related imagery and words from signage, and keeping the products out of sight of minors and passersby by keeping the shop's blinds closed.
"We're doing our due diligence," he said.
Some of the other dispensaries in Millbrook have been established in small structures on residential properties and community members have expressed concerns over the higher traffic volumes in these areas.
Community members say RCMP checkpoints have been noticed in the community near these areas since the chief sent his letter to the premier.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia RCMP said that "with road safety being a priority for RCMP, members have been conducting routine checkpoints in areas of high youth pedestrian traffic with the intent of reducing impaired driving and other related offences."
The spokesperson said the Millbrook checkpoints resulted in 28 charges from Oct. 11-16, five of which were under the Cannabis Control Act.
The statement said that officers are working with Millbrook chief and council to "address the issue of the retail sale of cannabis" in the community, but would not elaborate on how.