First nations stores no longer need SGLA permit

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The provincial government is hoping a rule change can “level the playing field” when it comes to cannabis stores in Saskatchewan. 

An order in council signed on July 28 states that First Nations will no longer have to secure a permit from the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA), the government body in charge of regulating the liquor and cannabis industries, in order to operate on-reserve cannabis stores.

However, the province will still require First Nations to establish some sort of regulatory framework and “enter into an agreement with SLGA,” a plan that has already been rejected by at least one First Nations chief.

Neither SLGA nor the Justice Ministry would provide an interview with CBC to discuss the change and its implications.

In a series of written statements, the government said its aim is that “all businesses operating within the province will be subject to substantially the same set of rules governing their operations, establishing a level playing field for cannabis retailers across the province” while creating “an opportunity to foster reconciliation and develop economic opportunities with First Nations.”

Numerous First Nations have already moved ahead on those opportunities without the province’s blessing. As many as eight cannabis stores on First Nations land have been operating without a provincial licence in the last year or so, according to media reports. 

Since cannabis was legalized in 2018 the provincial government has routinely insisted that the federal government and police services take action on enforcement. In 2019, Don Morgan, then justice minister, called on the federal government and the RCMP to shut down the two illegal on-reserve stores. 

However,the federal government has insisted the Cannabis Act puts sales and distribution solely under the purview of provincial and territorial governments.

Given that history, Jason Childs, an associate professor at the University of Regina who studies the cannabis industry and cannabis policy, says it seems more like the province is trying to distance itself from on-reserve stores.

“They want somebody else to regulate these stores,” he said, adding that self-regulation means it will be up to the First Nations to enforce all the provisions that go along with the federal laws.

Childs is unsure how it will play out, given that on-reserve stores have been operating without consequences for years.

Chief Derek Sunshine of the Fishing Lake First Nations says he has no intention of pursuing an agreement with the province or SLGA.

“They have no say in my nation,” he said, noting that the band created its own licensing system and its store is operating under that authority. “They have no right to say to my nation that we need a licence.”

In its statement, the government said it “engaged with several First Nations to establish options for First Nations to participate in the regulated cannabis industry, including First Nations currently operating cannabis retail stores.” It did not state which or how many were engaged.

Legislative, jurisdictional issues

Childs says the laws that govern cannabis were informed by significant public concerns, but a lot of those assumptions have not been borne out. 

“A lot of people who are more on the prohibition side of things were really worried about a massive uptake in use, that everyone would be stoned all the time was kind of the implicit fear, and that hasn’t come to pass,” Childs said.

“The other thing that was sort of expected was that this industry was going to be incredibly profitable, that these were going to be licences to print money, and that hasn’t come to pass either. So in a lot of ways we’re sort of at this point where the big concerns that were driving a lot of the policy and legislation initially have not materialized.”

Childs feels the resulting legislative gaps and jurisdictional disagreements could come to a head if the government can’t bring unlicensed First Nations stores onto its “level playing field.” He said other retailers might start to get concerned. 

“If you’ve got somebody else who’s not playing by the same set of rules that you have to play by,” he said, “you’re going to be kind of grumpy about it.”

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