Cross Country Checkup

Indigenous communities hope to cash in on cannabis, but how they'll do it is unclear

Despite legalization, issues such as revenue sharing and a lack of funding for community safety are roadblocks for Indigenous-led cannabis businesses.

Despite legalization, issues such as revenue sharing remain, says Grand Chief

Jamie Kunkel owns Smoke Signals, a marijuana dispensary with four franchises, on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont. (Submitted/Smoke Signals)

Recreational marijuana will be legal in Canada for the first time in nearly a century on Wednesday and Jamie Kunkel is excited.

"From an economic standpoint, it's a whole new industry which is going to create a whole lot of new jobs," Kunkel, the owner of medical marijuana dispensary Smoke Signals on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, told Cross Country Checkup's Duncan McCue.

"It's a choice people get to make about their own medication and well-being."

Marijuana legalization in the country has spurred a so-called green rush as companies begin to cash in on the growing industry.

Kunkel's Smoke Signals has four franchises — all Indigenous-owned and on Indigenous land — and he hopes that number will expand once legalization takes effect.

"It would be nice to have the opportunity to be able to participate in the outside economy, as well as the on-reserve economy," he said.

'Left out of the equation'

On Sunday, Checkup opened the lines to Canadians to share their thoughts on the upcoming legislation.

While some worried about secondhand smoke and the long-term effects of marijuana use, others were optimistic about how easier availability could benefit some communities.

Grand Chief Joel Abram sees both sides of the coin.

The head of London, Ont.-based Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians understands the potential economic boost marijuana could provide Indigenous communities.

Still, he worries that existing issues could fall by the wayside.

"We've sort of been left out of the equation when it comes to cannabis," Abram said.

Not all of Joel Abram's communities are on board with legal cannabis. 'They're not going to be having retailing going or production going on.' (Derek Spalding/CBC)

Among his concerns are revenue sharing — whether First Nations will see a cut of taxes charged on cannabis products — and whether First Nations will be able to adequately educate young peoples about its risks. 

"We're really concerned about youth mental health and we have no resources whereas municipalities, they've been promised a third of the revenues from the province," he said.

Business is brisk

According to Kunkel, many of his competitors — he says there are over 40 dispensaries in Tyendinaga — are doing their part in supporting their communities.

Some stores hosted giveaways around Thanksgiving for "any family in need," Kunkel said. Education is among his company's contributions.

"I'm currently in the process of building an education centre right here on the 49 highway," he said.

Kunkel displays products at his dispensary, Smoke Signals. (Submitted/Smoke Signals)

"We will be trying to hold weekly seminars and classes for just that purpose: to educate the community, the youth [and] the leaders of the community."

Meanwhile, business is good. Kunkel told CBC in January he can make between $5,000 and $10,000 a day.