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Cannabis Is Good Business, But Is it Good for Native Culture?

The past year has seen an uptick in cannabis related-businesses among tribes in the northwest, but many Natives still have mixed reviews about the endeavors.

The topic of cannabis and the celebration of the 2017 Canoe Journey/Paddle to We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum seemed a strange juxtaposition.

The Canoe Journey has done much to promote sobriety and healthy living among young Native people, and yet some pullers represent Native Nations that have gone into the cannabis business: The Suquamish Tribe owns Agate Dreams, a successful retail cannabis store on Highway 305 on the Kitsap Peninsula, west of Seattle; The Squaxin Island Tribe owns Elevation, a successful retail cannabis store in Shelton, west of the state capital of Olympia; The Puyallup Tribe operates a cannabis testing lab and a retail outlet for medical and recreational cannabis.

Twelve of 29 federally recognized Native Nations in Washington have compacts or are in the process of establishing compacts with the State of Washington, clearing the way for the sale of cannabis on their lands. (When Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not interfere as long as eight enforcement priorities were followed–among them, preventing access to marijuana by minors, preventing the criminal element from involvement in the industry, and preventing diversion of product out of state. The tribes’ compacts incorporate those priorities.)


The three aforementioned Native nations, as well as Muckleshoot, have compacts. Those awaiting final approval: Colville, Quinault, Spokane, Samish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Stillaguamish, and the Tulalip Tribes.

In media interviews, some Native leaders have indicated that they had no choice but to legalize cannabis retail on their lands. State voters legalized recreational marijuana, bringing it to tribes’ doorsteps, Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said. Some Native leaders have said that even though their governments are legalizing cannabis retail, they don’t want their children using recreational marijuana.

Tribes have found that there are advantages to legalizing cannabis on their lands. One, tribal governments can set the rules for how and where cannabis is sold on their lands.

Two, on tribal lands that have non-Native residents, marijuana laws are easier to enforce. Had marijuana possession and use remained illegal under Suquamish law, enforcement on the 7,657-acre reservation – where 3,581 acres are owned by non-Indians – “would have been quite complex,” Suquamish Police Chief Mike Lasnier said in an earlier interview.

Tribes that legalize cannabis on their lands are also capturing some serious retail revenue. Tribes don’t have to disclose through the state how much revenue their retail operations generate. But a look at sales figures for the 421 off-reservation retailers and 1,197 off-reservation producer/processors show the economic punch of the cannabis market: $1.1 billion in total sales and $256 million in state excise tax revenue in 2016, according to the website The state’s top retailer, Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver, Washington, reported sales of $1.4 million, and $523,805 in excise tax paid to the state, in June this year.

(Two kinds of taxes are imposed in retail cannabis sales: excise tax and sales tax. The state does not collect excise tax on reservations. To level the playing field, Tribes agree in their compacts to charge non-Native customers the same excise tax that those customers would pay off-reservation. The competitive advantage: Like any government, Tribes set their own sales tax rates, and that rate can be lower than the sales tax rate in neighboring jurisdictions. All cannabis-related tax revenue collected by tribes is used for tribal government services.)

Tribes are working hard to educate young people about the importance of living alcohol- and drug-free lives – values that are a big part of the Canoe Journey. Does cannabis conflict with indigenous values? Can cannabis and indigenous values co-exist?

Opinions vary. Some see cannabis as an economic opportunity, others say it has medicinal value, others say it is a good alternative to dangerous drugs. (Those who shared their opinions were clear that their views are their own, and that they don’t speak for their tribe.)

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“If it was never part of our culture or values, why would we want to be introducing [cannabis] into our communities in the first place,” asked Robin Carneen, Swinomish. “I think it is a mixed message if we are trying to keep our communities drug- and alcohol-free.”

Deborah Parker, former vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, said she’d like to see tribes move toward other forms of economic development. “It seems we keep moving toward vices – smoking, drinking, gambling. I'd like to see us move toward a more sustainable future, including solar, wind, agriculture, etc.

“My thoughts: We are taught not to abuse medicinal plants. A way to honor hemp would be to use hemp for lotions, healing, housing, and other ways, to honor the uses of the plant.”

Aaron Thomas, former chief of staff for the Lummi Indian Business Council and owner of a business management and marketing consulting firm, said, “I think we need to have an honest discussion about cannabis as a people, but I don't see it on our annual [Lummi] General Council agenda. Personally, I think the use of marijuana as a commodity for making products (rope, oils, etc.) is what our people would agree on. We have such an epidemic of addiction here, that on a message standpoint, we probably won't ever endorse the selling of it for recreation. Medically, however, would be good, I think.”

The Tulalip Tribes is suing the State of Washington and Snohomish County for taxing business transactions conducted by non-Indians at Quil Ceda Village on the Tulalip reservation. Tulalip alleges state and county taxation on Indian land violates the U.S. Constitution.

The state doesn’t return a share of tax revenue to Quil Ceda Village because it doesn’t recognize the village as a city (the federal government does). Tulalip Tribes contends that county and state taxes preclude the tribes from imposing its own taxes to support public services, because an additional tax would drive businesses and consumers away.

“I think the question should be ‘What is preventing tribes from operating as successful governments,” said Theresa Sheldon, current vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes. “To that I would answer, ‘Not being able to tax as a government.’ … We have to look into economic development projects that most would not consider if we had a reasonable source of income to maintain our governmental needs.”’

Robert Upham, a Dakota ledger artist, looks at the issue through an indigenous lens. He’s used tobacco as a form of offering, and uses tobacco with others as a form of communion. He bristles at federal government attempts to classify plants that have long been used as medicine in Indian country, remembering how sacred peyote was considered illegal until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law in 1978.


He views cannabis the same way: It is sacred; it is used in Rastafari religious ceremonies. And it is medicine; the Puyallup Tribe is exploring the medicinal uses of cannabis for its Salish Cancer Center, formerly the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center. Salish Cancer Center combines conventional cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation) and integrative oncology (naturopathic medicine, traditional medicine, and acupuncture).

“All plants are sacred,” Upham said. “It depends on your reason [for using it]. If you have bad intentions in mind, then using it is unhealthy. If you have good intentions in mind, then using can be good.” He said it’s difficult to properly view cannabis use “while looking at it through a wrong lens.”

Mary Ann Peltier, Chippewa/Assiniboine, knows what lens she’s using here: “I believe it is setting a double standard and sending a confusing message to our young people.”