Orange Bridge Cannabis opens at Tseshaht Market, First Nation plans to reinvest profits back into community programs

Eric Plummer, September 11, 2019

Manager Ron Kyle (centre), Assistant Manager Tammy Lucas and Tseshaht Councillor Ken Watts stand in Orange Bridge Cannabis days before the store’s opening at the Tseshaht Market on Sept. 11. (Eric Plummer photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

The Tseshaht are Vancouver Island’s first Aboriginal community to open a government-approved cannabis store, with a pot shop introduced today at the First Nation’s market on the highway to Tofino.

The 100-per-cent Tseshaht-owned Orange Bridge Cannabis formally opens to the public today at 7583 Pacific Rim Highway, located west of Port Alberni at the Tseshaht Market on the First Nation’s reserve land. With a staff of six employees - including five Tseshaht members – Orange Bridge Cannabis currently offers a variety of marijuana buds, and plans to expand their selection of products once regulations allow.

Named after the Highway 4 bridge across the Somass River that was once painted a memorable colour recalled by generations of Alberni Valley residents, Orange Bridge Cannabis have been in development for at least a year, after Canada’s Liberal government announced the legalization of marijuana for non-medicinal use. The initiative began with direction from the Tseshaht community to explore cannabis retail, said Watts. After seeing presentations on the opportunity from federal, provincial and municipal officials, the First Nation opted to own the store entirely.

“We could have partnered with a number of people but, at the end of the day, I think the nation wanted 100 per cent of the profits and to determine the employment themselves,” explained Tseshaht Councillor Ken Watts. “Definitely our return on investment is going to pay off quite well, based on our projections.”

The cannabis store first opened for the Labour Day weekend, but waited until Sept. 11 to regularly sell products. As marijuana retail is now managed by B.C.’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, red tape and government approvals have been extensive, including a detailed record check for employees and rules preventing the touching or consumption of cannabis in the store. 

“We decided to go through the licencing route for a number of factors,” said Watts, who expects that the tight regulations will discourage interference from organized crime. “The staff have all been trained on the matters of percentages of THC and the other percentages that you require for each product.”

After recreational marijuana use became legalized last October, B.C.’s regulators have received hundreds of retail applications. Port Alberni city council has approved nearly half a dozen stores, including a provincial branch that also opened on Sept. 11. The Tseshaht Market location is an essential part of the shop’s viability, as one to 1.5 million travellers pass by the spot annually on the way to Vancouver Island’s west coast attractions, said Watts.

The product will be provided to the store by the provincial government, which uses a number of licenced growers, but the Tseshaht hope to eventually raise their own cannabis.

“The community gave us direction to proceed as required – not just in the retail space, but also in the cultivation side,” said Watts. “The long-term goal is that we eventually become one of those dozens of companies that are going to be supplying the province with our own strain.”

Although cannabis has been legally used for pain management and other medicinal purposes for several years in Canada, health authorities still caution the public about marijuana’s psychoactive effects. Users are advised to avoid driving due to possible impairment.

“The long-term effects of cannabis on your brain can include an increased risk of addiction,” states Health Canada. “Long-term cannabis use can also harm your memory, concentration, intelligence (IQ), [and] ability to think and make decisions. Effects appear to be worse if you start using early in adolescence [and] use frequently and over a long period of time.”

“Whether it’s a legal product or not, addiction issues are an issue anywhere, especially in First Nations communities - but we’re making sure our staff are fully controlling the product,” said Watts, noting that the economic potential of the store will allow the First Nation to reinvest profits back into programs that attend to addictions and mental health problems among its members.

“This is a chance for us to be preventative,” he said.