Who’s responsible for regulating cannabis stores operating under the sovereignty banner?

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Two unlicensed cannabis stores in Cambridge, Ont. are causing concern, but for now, both remain open.

Sovereign Toke and Grand River Medicinal both have signs posted outside reading: “this store is operated by sovereign people on sovereign land. We are exercising our constitutional and inherent rights.”

“These stores, they don’t have to follow any of the same rules. They don’t have any of the same costs, and they undercut the prices of all the legal stores,” explained Corry Van Iersel, the president of True North Cannabis Co., which has a location on King St. East, just down the road from one of the unlicensed stores.

True North Cannabis Co. in Cambridge, Ont. (Krista Simpson/CTV Kitchener)

Van Iersel notes that licensed stores face a number of expenses, ranging from insurance fees to computer programs, required for government reporting of sales. They also have to operate under strict rules, including ones that regulate the strength of their products.

Unlicensed stores, on the other hand, do not.

“The prices are cheaper and their products are stronger,” Van Iersel said.

True North Cannabis Co. in Cambridge, Ont. (Krista Simpson/CTV Kitchener)

He’s reached out to the Waterloo Regional Police Service in the hopes of getting the stores shut down.

“They told me to call the AGCO, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission. They told me to call the OPP, the OPP tell me to call regional police,” Van Iersel explained.

In a statement to CTV News, Waterloo Regional Police said: “We take all incidents of a criminal nature seriously and can confirm that illegal cannabis dispensaries throughout the region are being investigated by our service in partnership with the Provincial Cannabis Enforcement Team.”

They continued: “We remind the public that it is illegal and unsafe to purchase cannabis from anywhere other than an Ontario-authorized, licensed retail shop, or online through the Ontario Cannabis Store website.”

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said it’s only responsible for regulating Ontario’s cannabis stores, but does not have a compliance role for ones that operate without a license. While Ontario Provincial Police said this case would fall under the jurisdiction of local police.

Grand River Medicinal in Cambridge, Ont. (Krista Simpson/CTV Kitchener)

According to Indigenous rights lawyer Sara Mainville, there are a number of so-called sovereign stores operating in southern Ontario.

“This is sort of the problem coming to roost, that the federal and provincial governments have ignored First Nations who have wanted to legitimately participate in this industry and didn’t have the tools to do so.”

Mainville said Ontario missed an opportunity when developing its cannabis store framework.

“The answer for me, it always has been to legitimize First Nations in regulating these activity so… it doesn’t end up spilling across the province.”

Mainville adds that these kinds of stores are low on the enforcement list for municipal and provincial police services.

While some have raised concerns about the safety of the products being sold at these stores, Mainville said those fears may be overblown.

“It’s your neighbourhood dealer that’s supplying these cannabis stores,” she explained.

Mainville said there are problems with unlicensed stores operating under the sovereignty banner.

“I definitely support the assertion of rights in a lot of different ways, but this assertion of rights is not benefiting anybody but the store owner and probably a number of partners behind them that are probably not even Indigenous. So this is one of the sole reasons why I’m very critical of it. I don’t see any benefit going back to the community in these stores, unlike some of the First Nations stores that are open and have the support of the community, they do do revenue sharing and they do give back to the community and these stores do not.”

CTV News visited both Cambridge stores hoping to speak to the owners, but neither have responded to our request for an interview.

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