Brick-and-mortar cannabis stores have so far been hard to come by in Ontario. But come October, Canada’s most populous province should have 50 more marijuana shops, and eight of them will be on First Nations reserves. On July 3, the Government of Ontario announced plans for a second round of retail store authorizations. But the process of applying for retail licenses will be different for First Nations communities. Unlike the “expression of interest” lottery the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) will use to award 42 other private cannabis retail store licenses, it will award the eight licenses to First Nations communities on a first come, first served basis.

Eight of 50 New Ontario Pot Shop Licenses Will Go to First Nations Businesses

Unlike other Canadian provinces, Ontario has been slow to establish a private retail cannabis market. 25 privately operated retail locations were slated to open across the province on April 1, but some have yet to open their doors. The reason for the 25-shop cap, according to the AGCO, was a shortage in the national supply of cannabis. At the same time, limited access to licensed retail stores helped to re-entrench the unregulated cannabis market Ontario officials are keen to dismantle.

And now that the national supply issue is easing, the AGCO is authorizing an additional 50 dispensary permits, in hopes improved accessibility will combat the unlicensed market. “Our government is continuing to take a responsible approach to opening cannabis stores across Ontario, allowing private sector businesses to build a safe and convenient retail system to combat the illegal market,” Finance Minister Rod Philips said in a statement.

Philips’ statements echo the interests of First Nations officials and community leaders who are likewise interested in ensuring safe and secure access to legal cannabis. And the AGCO is moving toward that goal with a separate licensing process for First Nations communities that want to open retail marijuana businesses.

The AGCO will award retail permits for First Nations applicants on a first come, first served basis, and will begin accepting applications on July 31 at 9:00 am. Prior to participating in the licensing process, First Nations applicants must first obtain approval from the First Nations Band Council to operate a store on their reserve. Detailed application instructions are available on the AGCO website.

Ontario First Nations Struggle for Cannabis Sovereignty

As Canada’s public and private recreational marijuana markets have flourished after last October’s historic nationwide legalization, First Nations communities have struggled to enter the industry on equal footing. Simultaneously, cannabis is a controversial issue within First Nations communities, with some choosing to opt-out of the legal industry and others moving to embrace it—on their own terms. For many First Nations communities, cannabis is a question of sovereignty and self-determination, of the economic and cultural right to control production.

For their part, the Government of Ontario said it is working to engage with First Nations interested in developing their own approaches to cannabis, and to identify how the government can best support efforts by First Nations communities to promote public safety and legal access to cannabis.


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