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Food or Marijuana Production: Which Has a Better Return for Tribes?

What has a better return on investment for tribes—food or marijuana production? Native law conference speakers discuss the possibilities.

Tribal Stewardship of Plant and Food Sovereignty was the subject of a Native law conference at the University of Idaho. Presentations were given on a number of subjects by speakers from as far away as Kansas, Arkansas, and Alaska, but the recent national headlines concerning tribes and marijuana brought that subject to the forefront.

Janie Hipp Simms, an attorney, and director of Indigenous Food and Agriculture at the University of Arkansas School of Law. “Everyone is saying action is going to be required by tribal government, either pro or con. My tribe has already kind of said we’re not going into this phase.”

She explained that the legal environment around marijuana production for either medical or recreational use is very unsettled. “Specifically, we’re relying on a set of four different memos which is not federal law. Until there’s more clarity we need to be very cautious about how we move forward. There’s a lot of gray data and not really good data on the return of investment with marijuana production and we don’t have clear paths either as a matter of federal or state law.”

Janie Hipp Simms, an attorney, and director of Indigenous Food and Agriculture at the University of Arkansas School of Law, spoke at the recent conference.

RELATED: What Does Marijuana Memo Mean for Hemp Production and Traditional Uses?

“If tribes push forward into marijuana production we need to go into it with eyes wide open, and fully identify the return on investment, as well as the risk associated with producing a crop,” Hipp said. “A lot of folks talk about open field production or very very high end green house production.” Either method is expensive.

She talked of other crops, and the return on investment for those crops using charts showing financial return by acre of various plants and said that in every case a side-by-side comparison with marijuana should be made.

Hipp also spoke of the increasing need for food production due to climate change and rapidly increasing human numbers. California is in extreme drought, and unless this ends soon, things like fruit, vegetables, and nuts will need to be imported. The country is also seeing farms disappearing as farmers move into other types of work. “A quarter of our citizenry across Indian country are on stamps. We clearly have a food sovereignty and food access concern. I don’t want us as a country, to import all those food items,” she said.

She pointed out that much of Indian country is in rural and remote spaces. “I can’t figure out why we would choose marijuana production over food production when the numbers push toward deciding food production. Our people need to have local foods available and accessible. We live in food deserts.”

Jim Kackman directs the Coeur d’Alene tribal farm and he reiterated those ideas. “There’s going to come a day when we’re going to have a difficult time meeting the world’s demand for food. Yields per acre are not increasing like the population.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe farms 5,300 acres, but Kackman pointed out that there are many more acres just on this reservation that could be put into food production.

Anne Kelleher serves as Deputy Prosecutor for the Nez Perce Tribe and said, “This is a hot button issue right now. We’ve all seen headlines that [tribes are] now free to grow marijuana. These headlines don’t paint the entire picture.” She pointed out that things in federal and state court are not necessarily so in tribal court. “The Nez Perce Tribe has two sections of tribal code that prohibit possession, distribution and use of marijuana. The tribe is very concerned that this particular area is well enforced.”

Anne Kelleher, who serves as Deputy Prosecutor for the Nez Perce Tribe, spoke at the recent conference.

Chief of the Nez Perce Police Department, David Rogers, spoke of such potential problems as lack of a good process for testing drivers using marijuana such as is used in alcohol. “There has been an increase in fatal motor accidents involving the influence of marijuana.”

Rogers also spoke of work he has done in Mendocino County, California. “The sheriff there says he spends about 80 percent of his time dealing with illegal grows and people violating the limits their license allows, plus continual inspections—instead of dealing with more serious crimes.”

There’s also the area with young people and marijuana and the challenges that presents. “One of the things I’ve always been impressed about [with] our youth is when we talked to them about what their dream is for their community—it is for it to be drug and alcohol free,” Rogers said. “That’s always been a driving force behind my work.”