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OPP cannabis enforcement unit ‘looking into’ unlicensed Indigenous store in London

The owner of Spirit River Cannabis says he is simply upholding his constitutional rights

By Colin Butler · CBC News · Posted: Dec 15, 2022 

Spirit River Cannabis held its grand opening in downtown London, Ont., on Dec. 3 at 72 Wellington St. The store’s owner Maurice French is marketing his product as traditional medicine and sells it tax-free. (Colin Butler/CBC)

The Ontario Provincial Police unit responsible for cannabis enforcement says it is currently “looking into” an Indigenous-owned cannabis retail store operating without a licence in London, Ont.

“[The OPP] is aware of this unlicensed cannabis retail store and will be looking into this in further detail,” Det.-Const. Sarah Bamford of the OPP’s provincial joint forces cannabis enforcement team (PJFCET) wrote in an email to CBC News Wednesday. 

The PJFCET is responsible for cannabis enforcement in Ontario and, in the process, investigating whether retailers are criminal enterprises looking to exploit and/or abuse the legal cannabis retail market. 

With the OPP now investigating Spirit River Cannabis, it could be a sign the police and the shop’s owner are on a collision course — setting the stage for a major test of Ontario’s cannabis retail laws. 

Store sells cannabis its own way

The Spirit River Cannabis trading post held its grand opening on Dec. 3 at 72 Wellington St. where it operates out of a trailer on the promise to sell cannabis its own way — tax-free, promoted as traditional medicine and, according to its owner, carries a majority of products “sourced by First Nations people.”

Longtime Indigenous rights activist Crane Clan Chief Del Riley, 80, left, has been advising his nephew Maurice French, 51, right, of Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, on the opening of his first Indigenous cannabis shop located in the city of London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Under the law, cannabis must be sold with all applicable federal and provincial taxes, it cannot be promoted as “medicine, health or pharmaceuticals” and retailers must source its product from a federally licensed cannabis producer. 

Spirit River’s owner, Maurice French, 51, told CBC News he follows strict standards when selling his products under the protocols and bylaws laid out by the Northshore Anishabek Cannabis Association, which he said are similar, if not more rigorous, than the rules set out by the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario.

French already owns three stores that sell cannabis in a similar way as Spirit River, but all of them are located on traditional First Nations territory in southwestern Ontario. His London store is his first foray into a major Ontario city. 

French argues he has the constitutional right to operate within city limits because the City of London land acknowledgement, which is recited before almost all official city business, recognizes London is part of “the traditional lands of the Anishinaabek.”

French has already fought the law and won

Based on that, French argues, he has a right to sell cannabis within city limits the same way he sells cannabis at his other three stores, located in Chippewa of the Thames, Melbourne and Ipperwash. 

French has already fought the law and won after the OPP raided his store on Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, where the selling of cannabis has been illegal since 2018.

After a four-year court battle, Crown prosecutors dropped all charges against French in May after his lawyers raised a constitutional question, arguing by shutting down his store, police were violating the rights of French and his customers by denying them the right to approach healing from a traditional Indigenous cultural perspective. 

Sections 25 and 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act recognizes the rights of Indigenous people as part of the supreme law of the land, but does not spell them out in detail.

A number of experts in constitutional law and Indigenous treaty rights contacted by CBC News earlier this month declined to comment on how such a case may play out in court. 

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