“Indige-Smoke” re-opens in Ontario, but without cannabis—for now

| David Brown

A chain of Indigenous-branded retail stores that sold cannabis in Ontario which police have targeted in two rounds of raids for operating without a licence has re-opened—but this time without cannabis, at least for the time being.

On June 5, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) executed nine search warrants in an attempt to shut down six “Indige Smoke” cannabis stores operating in various locations in the province. The chain is now advertising on social media that several of these locations have reopened in some capacity as of Sunday, June 23.

Until the owners of the chain can successfully challenge the raids in court through a constitutional challenge, the company says it will be only selling tobacco products, not any cannabis, as they were before the raids. The store’s website still advertises cannabis for sale.

The company’s Instagram account first posted on June 22 that its landlords were not allowing them to re-enter these properties, but a subsequent post later the same day said they had regained control of the stores and would be reopening the following day. A follow-up post on June 23 then instructed customers to visit sea cans behind or next to some of the stores’ previous locations.

Police estimate they seized around $1 million worth of cannabis in the raids in early June, along with weapons and other equipment. Eleven people were arrested and charged with 34 offences. They were released from custody and will appear before the Ontario Court of Justice in St. Catharines on July 18, 2024.

These raids were at least the second time police have targeted the Indige Smoke stores. In March, three were shut down, seizing products and arresting three people. Those stores were quickly opened again following the raids, according to posts on their Instagram account, although at least one location had a notice of Closing Orders posted as well.

While some Indigenous and First Nations activists have argued that they can operate cannabis businesses without provincial or federal oversight, the provincial and federal governments have disagreed. In a recent court case in Nova Scotia, a judge rejected an attempt by several Indigenous cannabis store owners in the province to argue they can operate without provincial approval but said he would welcome a “stronger” argument along the same lines. 

Enforcement of provincial cannabis laws is a jurisdictional and political challenge for provinces, often taking different enforcement approaches. For example, the British Columbia government has said that its cannabis laws apply even within First Nations communities but that they choose not to enforce them in most cases. However, law enforcement agencies have recently conducted raids on several of these stores

New Brunswick, on the other hand, has said it cannot or will not take enforcement action against unlicensed cannabis stores operating within First Nations reserve lands. Police in both provinces, though, have taken enforcement action against unlicensed cannabis stores operating outside of First Nations reserve lands, even if owned and operated by Indigenous peoples.

Such jurisdictional and legal complexities have played out in Ontario, as well. In 2022, crown prosecutors dropped all charges against the owner of an unlicensed Indigenous-owned store operating on traditional First Nations territory in southwestern Ontario that OPP had raided several years prior.

That store subsequently opened a new location in late 2022 in London, Ontario, which is still in operation today.

Featured image from Instagram, showing the new tobacco-only store next to an Indige-Smoke location.