The passion Crystal (River) Johnson once had for her cannabis dispensary at her Splatsin property near Enderby is gone.
Passion has been replaced by frustration and sadness as the owner-operator of High Status Cannabis announced that an over-saturation of dispensaries on band land and a lack of leadership from band council has led to her decision to close the shop’s doors at the end of February.
“We are and have been in a state of white knuckling it for some time now,” wrote Johnson on the shop’s Facebook page. “We can no longer keep our doors open here, and we will be no longer able to employ Splatsin people here.”
High Status Cannabis was the first dispensary to open on Splatsin land in August 2019. Johnson’s shop, and one other, she said, are the only two out of an approximate dozen dispensaries on band land fully owned, operated and employing Splatsin community and band members.
Johnson used her own capital and own connections to begin her business. The majority of dispensaries are owned by non-Indigenous people who partner up to open a dispensary on band land, as there are no bylaws in place regulating such matters.
Johnson said she is being smothered out of the cannabis industry.
“This is a way to sovereignty for our people,” she said. “What I worried about was the government stepping in and saying ‘You can’t manage this, we need to do it and you have to do it our way.’ We could have managed it but they (federal government) refused to be part of that solution.
“We are having non-Indigenous people evade the provincial and federal laws around cannabis, coming here hiding behind our lands. Do they care about our people? It’s like the old story of the white man bringing whiskey to the reserve. They take advantage of our men, our women, our land and our resources. It’s the same damn thing, just a new way to do it.”
In her nearly three years of operation, Johnson said she has given back wholeheartedly to the community. This past Christmas, she said, the shop sponsored five families – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – to the tune of $3,500 to help them out.
“We provide employment to community and band members,” said Johnson. “We gave back, gave to fundraisers. We helped kids in university with moving costs. Now, we can’t do that.”
Johnson approached Splatsin leadership when she was getting ready to open her business. She wasn’t there seeking permission, she said, rather wanting to know the bylaws that were in place on band land for cannabis, permits needed, licensing requirements. She was told there wasn’t any. And there still isn’t.
It’s why Johnson ran unsuccessfully for Splatsin council in the January 2022 band elections, missing out on a seat by three votes. She wanted to make change.
Newly elected Splatsin Kukpi7 (Chief) Doug Thomas declined to comment.
Johnson had hoped to see Splatsin members thrive in the industry, but she said the over-saturation makes that nearly impossible. If her own children had a passion a decade or so down the road for extracts or concentrates in cannabis, there wouldn’t be a place at home to do it with all the dispensaries.
She feels like she has failed her people.
“I believe we are still allocating a movement of conquering our own people at home,” said Johnson. “We are enabling non-Indigenous people to come to our lands and put our own members in an oppressive state. For this I am left feeling disturbed and disappointed.
“I really believed if I worked really hard that it would be seen and potentially have some sort of support. But, again, nothing.”
The neighbouring and surrounding City of Enderby has one dispensary for its population of less than 4,000 people, compared to the 12 on Splatsin land for just under 3,000 people.
Mayor Greg McCune isn’t surprised at the number of dispensaries that have cropped up on band land.
“When this was rolled out the federal government thought it would be a moneymaker; it opened the door for what’s happened,” said McCune, who felt bad for Johnson’s predicament. “She was doing very well.”
The mayor, though, wouldn’t lay all of the blame on the Splatsin council.
“A lot of it was a new industry that flew a little too fast,” he said “I think, moving forward, new Kukpi7 (Chief Douglas) Thomas and council will be making some decisions and they will take some action. I’m confident on that.”
North Okanagan Shuswap MP Mel Arnold said constituents shared concerns about the rapid establishment of many shops selling cannabis on Indigenous reserves in 2019 and 2020. He wrote to the federal minister of justice and attorney general, Minister David Lametti, and the then-minister of public safety Minister Bill Blair, to share those concerns.
He is still waiting for a response.
“I informed the ministers that I had been informed that some shops were being operated in part by non-Indigenous persons who were exploiting the non-regulation of cannabis sales on-reserve and that my constituents and I were concerned that organized criminal organizations were using Indigenous communities as havens for their trafficking of illicit drugs,” said Arnold.
“I also clearly told the ministers that these growing problems were precipitated by the federal government’s cannabis legislation that failed to provide regulatory certainty for all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.”
Arnold requested the ministers work with Cabinet colleagues and all relevant levels of government to deliver legislation to address the disparities and safety concerns.
“In 2019 and 2020, constituents in the North Okanagan-Shuswap shared concerns with me regarding the rapid establishment of many shops selling cannabis on Indigenous reserves.
“I will continue to press the federal government to work with all other levels of government, including Indigenous governments, to take the steps required to increase public safety for all communities,” said Arnold.