Pot on the Rez
Native American tribes across the nation are transitioning into the marijuana business.
By Russ Belville
There are 566 federally recognized Indian Nations located within two-thirds of the United States, and they’re all subject to their own tribal laws and government. Alaska is home to the most native people, with 229 nations within its great expanse; the remaining 337 nations are located in 33 other states, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
Nearly nine months after Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, the federal government responded with a memo that laid out eight priorities to U.S. Attorneys regarding the enforcement of federal drug laws in those states. Known as the Cole memo, its main concerns are distribution of marijuana to minors and the diversion of marijuana from states where it’s legal to ones that are not.
This brought up the question about tribal sovereignty: If states are given the leeway to legalize marijuana, why not the sovereign Indian nations? In response to this question, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued another DOJ memo, this time from Monty Wilkinson, Director for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. “The eight priorities in the Cole memorandum will guide United States Attorneys’ marijuana enforcement efforts in Indian Country,” he wrote, “including in the event that sovereign Indian Nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country.”
The first tribe to seize the opportunity was the 250-member Pinoleville Pomo Nation in Northern California near Ukiah, long known as a center of the famed Emerald Triangle marijuana cultivation economy. A 10,000-square-foot state-of-the art greenhouse is being constructed in cooperation with FoxBarry Farms of Kansas and the United Cannabis Corp (UCANN) of Colorado. “We have a history of using plants for medicine,” Pomo Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Angela James told Reuters. “The tribe is seeking economic development, and we’re comfortable with these partners and this product.”
More than 100 tribes are following the Pinoleville Pomo’s lead The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians of California will begin growing and selling medical marijuana this summer. The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana and the Red Lake Band of Chippewas in Minnesota have begun studying the feasibility of legalizing marijuana. The Suquamish Tribe in Washington last year notified authorities it was considering the production and sale of marijuana. In Maine, three of the state’s four recognized tribes are considering a move into the marijuana business.
At the end of February, 75 tribal leaders from across American gathered at the Tulalip Resort Casino on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State to form the Tribal Cannabis Association. At the end of March, San Diego hosted a symposium, “Marijuana: The Next Big Thing in Native American Economic Development?” The Green Rush that’s consumed Colorado and Washington seems primed to hit Indian Country.
From Casinos to Cannabis
In the 1976, a Supreme Court ruling in a Minnesota case (Bryan v. Itasca County) found that while states had jurisdiction over criminal laws on tribal lands—a tribe can’t make assault or bribery legal, for instance—the states had no jurisdiction over civil regulatory laws. From that point, many tribes began offering games of chance (gaming or gambling) on their reservations in the form of bingo parlors and card clubs.
One of these tribes, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in Southern California, had their gaming operations shut down by the state. The Cabazon sued, and in 1987, the Supreme Court sided with them, ruling that California gaming laws weren’t criminal laws, but civil regulations. This opened the floodgates for any tribe that wanted to start building large gaming operations, and by 1988, the Indian gaming industry was grossing over $110 million annually.
Congress responded with a law signed by President Reagan in 1988 called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). It codified gaming into three classes: traditional Indian gaming not subject to the law, bingo and card games permitted in states that allow any kind of gaming (all but Hawaii and Utah), and casino gaming subject to state law and federal approval. Since passage of the IGRA, Indian gaming has expanded to, according to NCAI, “nearly 240 tribes across 28 states [that] operated 420 gaming establishments representing a $27 billion industry.”
Despite the infusion of jobs and money provided by gaming, nearly two out of five Native people on reservations live in poverty and nearly one out of five are unemployed. Almost one out of five tribal homes lack a telephone, and 7% to 8% don’t have plumbing or kitchens. However, before significant investment in Indian gaming, those statistics were twice as bad or worse. Could Native American hemp fields, cannabis gardens and marijuana shops become the next economic engine to help pull Native Americans out of poverty?
How Native Is Marijuana
The history of using plants as medicine seems natural to anyone who thinks of Native Americans and the peace pipe. But actually, the peace pipe wasn’t used by all tribes and was ceremonial for most that did. Some tribes used tobacco as a sacrament. But many herbs and flowers were used throughout different tribes, including sage, mints, salvia, peyote, mullen and, yes, cannabis.
Native people also have a long history with the hemp as an industrial crop. British colonists learned hemp cultivation techniques from the Native Americans in the early 17th century. French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote in the 16th century that the land was “frill of hempe which groweth of itselfe, which is as good as possibly may be scene, and as strong.”
The Lakota Sioux nation has been battling the federal government over rights to cultivate any crop they wish, which were recognized by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. In 1998, the tribe passed laws allowing the cultivation of non-psychoactive cannabis hemp. Alex White Plume planted 300 acres in 2000, which the DEA then raided and eradicated. In 2001, the president of the Oglala Lakota Nation argued that the treaty was not superseded by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, as the government maintained. The federal courts disagreed, and lacking the funds to take an appeal to the Supreme Court, White Plume stopped growing hemp. The DEA kept raiding him, though, because the hemp kept coming back naturally, proving itself to be the perfect crop for the badlands of South Dakota.
Now, thanks to the Wilkinson memo, Native Americans everywhere may choose to allow for hemp cultivation, even on the Lakota’s Pine Ridge reservation where alcohol is banned. Well, except for Alex White Plume, who told Indian Country Today, “I won’t be growing it because I have a lifetime restraining order.”
Not all tribes are as sanguine about marijuana, with many citing the devastation alcohol and drug abuse has wrought on Native communities. The Navajo Nation, which bans alcohol and whose lands would make it the 44th largest state, passed resolutions against Arizona’s bill to legalize marijuana as well as the Wilkinson memo, stating: “Legalization of marijuana fails to align with the Navajo Nation’s values and traditions.” The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing nearly 50 tribes, passed a resolution last year opposing legalization of marijuana, citing its “threat to the health and safety of all tribes, especially our youth.” Washington State’s Yakama tribe has outlawed marijuana on its 1.2 million acres and wants to ban it on their ancestral lands, too, nullifying Washington’s 2012 legalization in about one-fifth of the state.
The Game Changer
Having grown up in Idaho, the time for having a statewide conversation on legalization of marijuana has always hovered between “later” and “never.” But as a young man, I remember visits to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for purchases you couldn’t make in the rest of Idaho—cheaper gasoline and cigarettes, functional glass art (what you call a pot pipe in Idaho), casino gambling and fireworks.
Now imagine Fort Hall, or any Indian reservation in places like Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas and other pot-hating red states, farming hemp and cultivating cannabis, and selling those products. The resulting flood of in-state and out-of-state traffic from people seeking cheap, raw hemp or legal pot highs will overwhelm these mostly-rural local jurisdictions forced to arrest people for marijuana possession, much like Colorado legalization is already overwhelming small towns on its borders with Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Red states that are already struggling with decreased revenues and unfunded budgets will watch tribes rake in the money that the state can’t tax. Those states with tribal-legal marijuana will be dragged kicking and screaming into a discussion of pot legalization in an economic if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join’em scenario.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians—the only recognized tribe in Alabama—are currently engaged in a lawsuit with the state over their existing gaming operations. The Poarch Band Creek tribe own land on the Florida Panhandle near Alabama upon which they wish to build a casino, but Florida has stymied their efforts over whether the tribe is recognized in Florida. To both states, the Creek have issued an ultimatum: Let us proceed with our casinos or we’ll start growing pot.
That’s what I call a game changer. Marijuana legalization has gone from a political non-starter to a political bargaining chip. Indian casinos opened the door for all manner of increased state gaming expansion. Expect Indian marijuana to do the same for state marijuana legalization.
Russ Belville is…
Could Native American hemp fields, cannabis gardens and marijuana shops become the next economic engine to help pull Native Americans out of poverty?