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Habitat Craft Cannabis founders Laine Keyes and Rudi Schiebel in their Genetics room at Habitat Craft Cannabis in Chase B.C. on Thursday September 26, 2019.

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s NDP government will open up the province’s cannabis market to give small and Indigenous growers better access to retail spaces as well as allow them to sell directly to customers who visit their facilities.

On Sunday, the day before calling an election, the government issued a news release detailing policies that are expected to come into force by 2022, a year after the province has pledged to begin carving out shelf space in licensed stores and online for a new program highlighting cannabis from Indigenous producers.

Current rules require cannabis producers to sell their products by shipping them to the province’s lone cannabis warehouse in Richmond. From there, they are then sent to retailers, where the product arrives on shelves drier and less fresh, critics say.

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“These steps will help grow the legal cannabis industry in B.C. in an inclusive way,” Attorney-General David Eby said in one of more than a dozen government news releases on Sunday.

B.C., with its developed underground trade, has been one of the slowest provinces to embrace Canada’s legalization of cannabis. July data from Statistics Canada shows $34.6-million of legal product was sold in B.C., compared with $51.7-million next door in less-populous Alberta.

Sophie Mas, the former head of B.C.'s Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Secretariat, said the changes will make it easier and cheaper for small-scale growers in the province to enter the legal sector. In particular, shipping products directly to the storefronts where they will be sold is much better than the current system.

As well, the “farmgate sales” or letting people smell and then buy – but not smoke or ingest – these products on the same site they are grown or produced will give B.C.'s smaller growers a leg up, added Ms. Mas, who now consults in the sector and speaks for the B.C. Craft Farmers Co-op she helped found.

“It’s a great step in the right direction, however, you need farmers to be licensed for these programs to be effective,” said Ms. Mas, whose group represents 130 small growers and processors across B.C.

“There are still a lot of people who are relying on the illicit market to make their purchases,” she said.

On Monday, B.C. announced a government-to-government deal with the Williams Lake First Nation that would allow it to take advantage of these two new policies early, possibly as early as next March, after a production site on its territory is licensed by Health Canada.

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Kirk Dressler, director of legal and corporate services with the Williams Lake First Nation, said the agreement means the nation has shut down the unlicensed store it had run on its territory in partnership with Indigenous Bloom chain of outlets and will soon open its own new shop, complete with a window to allow patrons to view the production floor.

“The look and feel of the facility will be akin to walking into a winery or a microbrewery,” he said.

The licensing also allowed the nation to get financing through the Bank of Montreal, he said, and the “ability to control money, to leverage our cash flow." The Williams Lake First Nation now has the option to partner with other First Nations groups on up to eight other locations.

Isadore Day, a former Ontario Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations who founded Bimaadzwin, his own cannabis consultancy, praised the Williams Lake First Nation venture as a positive step that could inform moves by other Indigenous entrepreneurs across the country.

He said the federal Liberal government did not consult thoroughly enough with First Nations before it legalized the drug and that means too many nations are still fighting to enter the licensed sector.

“One of the things we need to recognize is the economics of the First Nations cannabis industry was underestimated,” he said.

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