By Celina Gallardo Staff Reporter, Toronto Star
Jenna MoonStaff ReporterFri., Oct. 1, 2021timer3 min. read
Mississaugas of the Credit Medicine Wheel, an Indigenous-owned and operated cannabis store, is more than just a dispensary: it’s an attempt to fight back against “economic genocide,” its owner and operator said.
The store, operated by Ken Hughes of Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, is sovereign, meaning it’s operating outside of the scope of Ontario’s cannabis regulations and without a license — marking the first time a sovereign cannabis store has opened in Toronto.
While Medicine Wheel appears to be Toronto’s first, it isn’t the only sovereign cannabis dispensary in Canada. A map of similar stores compiled by the website Dispensing Freedom shows more than 250 sovereign shops operating coast-to-coast.
Since Danforth Avenue runs across an area of Mississaugas of the Credit territory, Hughes says members of the First Nation are entitled to self-governance on the land.
Medicine Wheel’s existence represents a move back to the First Nation’s homeland, Hughes said.
“I wanted to support my own people first,” he said. “And it’s our territory, so this is a good spot.”
As for the legality of Medicine Wheel, lawyer Jack Lloyd told the Star that, in general, Hughes could argue that there is a history of Indigenous trade and medical use of the cannabis plant prior to colonialism. Lloyd, who represents Hughes, said there is a difference between the sovereignty that Hughes is expressing and the “sovereign citizen” movement.
“Sovereign citizens” have traditionally been people who strive to sever ties with the government, “de-registered” themselves from drivers licences, health cards, and have often supported unobstructed property rights.
Unlike those that identify as “sovereign citizens,” Lloyd says that Hughes’ situation is a “distinct issue” related to Indigenous rights to various substances, noting that cannabis is similar to tobacco in its traditional use by Indigenous peoples.
“It’s a pre-treaty economic right that my client is expressing,” Lloyd added.
Hughes says that for him, operating through Ontario’s provincial licensing rules would be similar to getting a driver’s license from a province you don’t live in. He said he wouldn’t need a hunting license or safety course to hunt in Mississaugas of the Credit territory. “I have rights to do things in my traditional territory — and this is one of the things.”
Hughes’ store is not only Indigenous-owned and operated, his products are sourced via Nation-to-Nation trading with the Mohawk and Six Nations territories.
“It’s a whole network of Native people,” Hughes said. “That’s what we’re trying to establish.”
The Star has reached out to the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation to hear their thoughts on Hughes’ endeavour but has not heard back as of this article’s publication.
There is a history of police shutting down operations on Indigenous-led cannabis dispensaries in the past. Last December, police raided a cannabis shop on Aamjiwnaang Nation land. Charges were later withdrawn by the Crown for all but one employee.
Indigenous communities were largely left out of the conversation around cannabis legalization in Canada. In late 2017, Indigenous leaders raised concerns over Indigenous community safety if the government moved too quickly to legalize cannabis. In 2018, meanwhile, Six Nations of the Grand River drafted its own cannabis law, rather than waiting for regulations to be handed down from the federal and provincial governments.
At that time, former elected Six Nations Chief Ava Hill told the Hamilton Spectator that Indigenous communities were excluded from the discussion surrounding legalization.
Cheryl Tones, manager of Medicine Wheel, said the dispensary can play a role in harm reduction for Toronto’s Indigenous community. She said the store’s prices are lower than some competitors, making it an accessible option for people who may otherwise turn to stronger substances.
There is some evidence of cannabis being used as a harm reduction measure for drug users who are unable or unwilling to stop drug use completely, according to an article published in the Drug and Alcohol Review.
Tones said she’s worked with Toronto’s homeless community for 21 years and sees working with the community as an integral part of the work Hughes has set out to do at Medicine Wheel.
“I think it’s about time,” she said, of the store’s status as the first sovereignly operated cannabis store in Toronto.
Hughes offered some advice for other Indigenous people looking to operate a sovereign store similar to his.
First, get in touch with a good lawyer.
Second, prepare for issues that might arise.
“Don’t look for confrontations — just come and exercise (your) right,” he said.Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon