Medicine Wheel Natural Healing is the first Indigenous cannabis dispensary to open in Alderville First Nation and is part of a chain of unlicensed Indigenous cannabis stores operating on unceded land in Ontario. The store joins over 300 sovereign Indigenous cannabis stores in Canada according to Dispensing Freedom. These stores reject the colonial licensing regime and operate on sovereign land, which they argue they should have jurisdiction over.
Economic Prosperity for Indigenous Communities
Rob Stevenson is the owner of the Alderville location. In 2016, he came across the Ontario Indigenous Medical Cannabis Association and learned how cannabis was helping people. He also saw the economic opportunity for medical cannabis, if done right. “It can be done in a way that is not just beneficial to the business but Indigenous communities as a whole, and that has always been my path,” he says. “I wanted to get cannabis into communities that matches our traditions and cultures, do it in a safe way, and address the negative perceptions people may have.”
Opening on the Green Mile
“The store opened in 2017 and was only the second Indigenous dispensary to open in Canada next to Legacy 420,” says Stevenson. Medicine Wheel is located along Highway 45, coined the ‘green mile’ because of all the dispensaries located on it now (13-14 total). Stevenson embraces the competition but does believe the community has reached its capacity.
“I have always been a firm believer that competition is healthy. It has had an effect on us, with the store slowing down, but we’re still happy with where we’re at”, he states. “I don’t see the stores in Alderville and other Indigenous stores as competition. Together we can really grow the red market. Where I see competition is off reserve. We have hundreds of stores surrounding us. We differentiate ourselves by focusing on the medicinal effects of cannabis.”
Operating as an Unlicensed Dispensary
When asked about operating as an unlicensed dispensary, Stevenson says, “There was really no consultation with First Nations or opportunity for us to get involved when cannabis became legalized. There are also limitations within the federal model. We can’t talk about cannabis as medicine, and that’s what we really want to focus on. If we follow the rules, there’s no way for us to compete.”
Stevenson understands the concerns of licensed stores outside the Indigenous market. “Everything we’ve been doing has been to address their concerns, while honouring our own cultures and roots, and strengthening that sovereignty for our communities,” he explains. “If stores were in my position, they would be doing the same thing. It is our right under Section 25-35 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and we’re willing to fight for that. Reconciliation works both ways. We’re always willing to chat with people who want to and find common ground.”
Stevenson built the business with a focus on a seed-to-sale model. “We grow a lot of our own cannabis and many different strains,” he describes. “We’re out in the field barefoot, touching and breathing on the plants, and interacting with them. The better you treat them, the better they treat you.”
Medicine Wheel has its own manufacturing and extracting facility and lab-tests every product that goes through their store and wholesale network. The store has several custom product lines focused on the medicinal effects of cannabis, like full spectrum oils, tinctures, gummies, and topicals. They also deal with a number of Indigenous manufacturers.
“Our business is all about helping people and building the red market,” says Stevenson. “As we look to the future, Medicine Wheel is spreading its wings. We’re reaching out to different areas and looking at our rights and places that have unceded territory and opportunities for us to go into that market. We’re always trying to improve our labs, extraction techniques, and being able to control everything ourselves from seed-to-sale, packaging, and labelling.”
Stevenson notes the challenges of the pandemic and the economy. “Things have changed but that is the nature of the economy. You have to pivot, adapt, and go with the flow, and we’re really good at doing that. We face a lot of adversity but we always push through. We want to bring more people in and showcase our culture and traditions. We also want to increase empathy and reduce colonization for First Nations. We’re here to stay and we’re going to keep doing it the Indigenous way unless government makes significant changes.”
Images courtesy of Medicine Wheel