'Bigger Than Bingo': Seminole Gaming Visionary James Billie to Help Tribes Produce Marijuana

James Billie, a former Seminole Chairman renowned for initiating high-stakes bingo and paving for the way for tribal gaming rights, aims to help tribes produce marijuana and cannabis products on their lands. “Wherever it's legal, that's where we're going, where the other Native Americans are,” Billie told CNNMoney.

Billie's finance firm MCW has partnered with a Las Vegas-based cannabis investing and advisory firm, Electrum Partners, to leverage the tax and zoning benefits of tribal sovereign land rights. Billie envisions the legal cannabis industry as the next cash cow for Indian country. The burgeoning cannabis industry is projected to exceed $21 billion in nationwide annual sales by 2020, according to New Frontier Data. “It’s bigger than bingo and our gaming heritage, and, as the fastest growing industry in the United States with estimated value in the tens of billions, we are bringing the benefits of our tribal sovereignty to the cannabis industry and the cannabis industry leadership is partnering with us to enable the next huge economic development opportunity for the Native American community,” Billie said.

MCW and Electrum Partners will help tribes navigate the legal red tape to produce medical or recreational marijuana, and capitalize on the many ancillary businesses in the cannabis industry—paying mind to the numerous legal and regulatory complexities within each cannabis vertical. Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and D.C., recreational marijuana in eight. While Florida permits medical marijuana, Billie doesn’t have plans to grow weed on Seminole tribal land, because laws are too restrictive, he said. The newly partnered companies have yet to ink a deal with a tribe.


Electrum Partners was founded by Leslie Bocskor, a former investment banker. MCW is a Seminole Indian-owned company helmed by Billie as well as shareholders of Hard Rock International and Seminole Gaming. Together, they'll help tribes develop and expand marijuana tribal enterprises, while establishing regulatory frameworks across their cannabis verticals. Cannabis is not a single industry but dozens of sub-industries, each with its own barriers-to-entry and regulatory complexities. “The real issue isn't the money; the real issue isn't the business,” Bocskor told CNNMoney. “The real issue is the structure that makes sure you do this in a way to make sure you don't have an issue from a regulatory perspective.”

As a Native-owned firm operating on tribal lands, MCW will deliver the financial advantages of operating in a tax-free environment with limited liability. Other benefits include permit and zoning ease. Collaborating with MCW and Electrum will also give tribes insider connection to networks throughout the cannabis ecosystem, a press release states.

Bocskor told CNN Money that he’ll initially invest $25 million to $50 million in tribal cannabis business formation, though he hopes to increase those investments to $300 million within three years. “Life is all about relationships. MCW has the right relationships in Indian country; Electrum Partners has the right relationships in the business world, and collaboration of the mutual relationships will produce phenomenal results,” said Billie in a statement.

If Billie's foresight and political stamina is anything like his revolutionary efforts in the '80s, he could play a critical role in turning marijuana into the next mode of tribal economic development and self-determination. Billie served as Seminole tribal chairman for 28 years total including 22 from 1979 to 2001— the “longest tenure of any elected leader in the Western Hemisphere, other than Fidel Castro,” reported the Miami Herald. He again assumed the chairman role from 2010 to the end of September 2016, when the Seminole Tribal Council voted 4-0 to remove him as chairman, citing “various issues with policies and procedures of the chairman’s office.” Billie’s life, leadership and dedication to Indian sovereignty and self-reliance are recounted through Wrestling Alligators, the 2016 documentary about Billie, an alligator wrestler in his youth and Vietnam veteran, by director Andrew Shea and filmmaker Udy Epstein, that won accolades at the Florida Film Festival, Austin Film Festival and Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.