Cannabis on the Rez: When Will It Be Legal?

Cannabis legalization is a hot topic. After decades of collective societal distain for the plant ala Reefer Madness, public opinion now seems to be swaying in favor of its use, especially where its medicinal properties are concerned. The medicinal benefits of marijuana are scientifically proven. It’s been shown to help those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, anorexia, Hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic pain, arthritis, and a host of other serious health conditions.

In 20 states and the District of Columbia, medical use of cannabis is permitted on some level. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized its recreational use- although two Tribes in Washington state have kept it illegal. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department has said it won’t challenge states' marijuana laws as long as they do not oppose federal enforcement.

Industrial hemp, another species of cannabis with relatively low THC levels, also remains illegal to grow in the United States despite the fact that it’s highly profitable. Products like paper, rope, plastics and textiles may all be derived from industrial hemp. It’s good for the environment too. One acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four acres of trees. Just think of all the trees, including those in the rainforest that could be saved if we started growing hemp as a crop. Hemp can also be cultivated without using toxic herbicides and pesticides. A number of states, including my home state of South Dakota, are discussing the possibility of legalizing industrial hemp because of the benefits it would bring the environment, as well as growers and the state’s economy.

Tribes are also weighing the pros and cons of cannabis legalization; like the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. While some view legalization as an incredible opportunity to exercise Tribal sovereignty and give their economy a much needed shot in the arm, others worry about substance abuse issues, crime, and the possibility that their homelands could become a drug haven.

During a recent trip to northern California, where medicinal use of marijuana is legal, I decided to investigate into how legalization has affected Native communities there.

I stayed at a reservation that was sandwiched between two other reservations. In California, reservations are called rancherias. The landscape was lush and green, full of ancient redwood trees perched on rolling hills. Some areas where marijuana is being cultivated are readily visible, and the smell of cannabis was apparent, even from the road.

I spoke with two Tribal members who are marijuana growers. They wished to remain anonymous.

The first individual had been growing marijuana for decades. As a result he was able to offer me a comparison of what it’s like to grow, use and sell marijuana before and after legalization.

As a user, he praised the use of medicinal cannabis. He said he was a recovering alcoholic and meth addict, and smoking marijuana kept him from relapsing. He also said that the process of growing marijuana himself was therapeutic. He took pride in the fact that the plants he grew were 100% organic.

As a dealer, he expressed concern about cannabis legalization. He said that seven years prior, a pound went for $35,000. Currently, it cost around $1,200. The market is flooded. For that reason, he explained, a lot of the pot grown in northern California leaves the state and is sold elsewhere. I questioned how so much could be illegally grown; he mentioned that his Tribe had no law enforcement. As a Tribe in a Public Law 280 state, they’re dependent on state police and that was apparently lax. Another negative of so much readily available cheap marijuana is that people use it as a form of currency, sometimes to purchase other drugs. Regardless, he said everyone was growing it - grandmas, grandpas, aunties, uncles - and they were good at it. A single plant could be 12-15 feet tall and yield 5-6 pounds all by itself.

The next grower I talked to was a staunch environmentalist who went by the book. He was pro legalization because he saw regulation as a way to weed out most negatives associated with the production and selling of cannabis. He was actively lobbying his Tribal council to legalize cannabis so the Tribe could have its own nursery. Besides providing the Tribe with new revenue, which he assured me would be greater than gaming profits, he sought to teach people how to grow cannabis in an environmentally friendly way. He expressed dismay as to how some people were not irrigating their plants properly, draining water sources during a drought, and illegally disposing of waste. He concluded that full legalization across the board was needed throughout the United States in order to insure that the process was regulated, and to stabilize the market. We also discussed how Tribes may be able to tax marijuana they sell, and how that promotes Tribal sovereignty. This grower also supported legalization of industrial hemp, although his Tribe didn’t have a large land base to support such an endeavor.

Whether you think cannabis legalization is dope or not, there’s no mistaking that legalization proponents are gaining ground. It’s time for Tribes to have a serious decussion about where they stand on the issue. If Tribes legalize cannabis before surrounding jurisdictions do, it’ll likely be challenged in federal court. Nonetheless, if done correctly, the benefits could outweigh the costs.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.