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First Nations hope for economic high from pot

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VANCOUVER—Canada's marijuana industry is expanding rapidly and some First Nations are looking to cash in on the emerging economic opportunities.

Phil Fontaine, an indigenous politician turned marijuana executive, has spent the last year travelling the country and talking to First Nations about jobs, wealth, and training opportunities the burgeoning marijuana business could bring.

“Everywhere we've been, it's been the same reaction, interest, excitement,” said the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

“First Nations are speaking about possibilities and potential," Fontaine added. "So it's been very encouraging,”

Marijuana businesses represent “tremendous potential” for First Nations, partially because communities are able to get in on the ground floor instead of fighting to catch up years later as traditionally has been the case, Fontaine noted.

“This is a unique opportunity,” he said in a telephone interview.

“This sector is different than any other the indigenous community has experienced," he noted. "Everyone is starting off at the same point.”

Fontaine is the CEO of Indigenous Roots, a medical marijuana company operated by and for First Nations across Canada.

The company is a joint venture with Cronos Group, a medial-marijuana grower licensed by Health Canada.

Once Indigenous Roots is operating, its profits will be split evenly between partner First Nations and Cronos.

Although recreational marijuana is set to become legal this summer, Indigenous Roots will focus on supplying prescription pot to First Nations' communities, which Fontaine said traditionally have had lower access to the drug.

“We want to make sure that this particular service is made available to our communities in every part of the country,” he remarked.

Plans are in the works to build an Indigenous Roots growing facility next to an existing Cronos facility in Armstrong, B.C., with the aim of serving patients by the end of 2018, Cronos CEO Mike Gorenstein said in an interview.

Current Cronos workers will train First Nations' employees to run the Indigenous Roots operation, he added.

“Long-term and medium-term, this is meant to be an indigenous-operated company,” Gorenstein said.

“Our commitment is to make sure that any knowledge that we have or we continue to gain, that we're sharing and we're always there to support.”

The new facility will create between 30 and 50 jobs, plus other opportunities in marketing, sales, and accounting, Gorenstein noted.

Future operations likely will be even bigger, he added.

A cannabis company in Northern Ontario also has teamed up with local indigenous communities.

Forty-nine First Nations have invested in 48North Cannabis, representing about 20 percent of the company's current shareholder base, said CEO Alison Gordon.

48North also has community benefit agreements with two indigenous communities near its operations in Kirkland Lake, Ont.

The company provides preferential hiring, and funding for drug and alcohol education, Gordon noted.

The company is waiting final approval from Health Canada before sending medical marijuana to market, and is eyeing the recreational market, Gordon added.

First Nations will help direct the company's growth, she said.

Other communities in B.C. believe cannabis could be a boon, and are asking the provincial government to help ensure they get a piece of the emerging market.

In recent submissions to the government's consultation on cannabis regulations, the Lake Cowichan and Ucluelet First Nations urged the province to implement a rule that requires a certain percentage of marijuana products be grown by indigenous cultivators.

“It is obvious that there is potential for cannabis to become an economic foundation for some First Nations communities,” says the submission from the Ucluelet First Nation.

“With proper consultation about regulation, this potential could be celebrated and fostered,” it notes.

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