First Nations cannabis retailer says her community flooded with outsiders taking advantage of lax enforcement

| David Brown

A cannabis retailer operating on First Nations land near Enderby, BC, says she will soon have to close her doors for good due to competition from others in the community. 

River Johnson, who owns and operates High Status Cannabis in the First Nations community of Splatsin says that in the past year the community has become inundated with other cannabis stores with no ties to her community. 

Johnson, who also goes by the name Setatkwa, blames the local Splatsin First Nation council for allowing a “free for all” for operators who are not of Indigenous descent who “want to escape provincial and federal laws”.

She says she opened her shop about a year ago and at the time was the first in the community. Although the local Splatsin First Nations council initially introduced bylaws to manage cannabis sales in their community, they were never approved. 

Johnson says this lack of rules and enforcement has led to criminal elements coming in to take advantage of the situation. 

“I don’t want criminal elements coming into our community. These were concerns I had when I opened the shop. And I went to my leadership and talked to them about that. 

But here we are now with a town of (less than 3,000) people with 12 dispensaries in it.”

“To me it’s embarrassing,” she continues. “I want Splatsin to govern our industry our way. Like the way we do with our medicines, so why are we not doing that with this, appropriately? And why would we not empower our own people to do this without the hands of these outsiders and potential criminals? I know there are criminals involved.”

Although she’s disheartened and expects to close in the next month, Johnson says she has other entrepreneurial plans in the cannabis space she hopes to announce soon. But the retail cannabis side of things isn’t for her anymore. 

The cannabis industry could be a path for First Nations to get out of poverty, she says, but instead, she feels pushed out by outsiders who don’t care about her community at all.

“We’re trying to get out of poverty. First Nations lands are only .2% of the land base in Canada, and they come here too? And flush us out?”

Neither the Splatsin First Nation council nor the Enderby city council were willing to provide comment for this article by press time. 

Although the BC government maintains that their provincial cannabis retail laws apply on First Nations lands, they have in the past said they do not pursue such enforcement out of fear of being taken to court

Last year, a group of cannabis retailers in BC licensed by the province sent a letter to BC’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth accusing him of mismanagement of the cannabis file for allowing retailers in First Nations communities to operate outside provincial law. 

Instead, BC has been taking an approach they say is intended to encourage participation in Canada’s legal industry. The province also recently launched an Indigenous Cannabis Product program to identify First Nations owned products on shelves in BC’s stores.

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