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Rez Should Say No to Pot—But A Huge YES to Hemp

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In mid-December the Department of Justice announced that Indian nations may look towards enacting rules and regulations concerning the growing of marijuana on reservations for medicinal (commercial) and recreational (commercial) use. So far, not much has come of this, since the DEA considers marijuana a drug and illegal, they still enforce the draconian policies established by competitive industries, like the lumber and petroleum businesses, in the late 1930’s that would make the growing of any type of hemp and marijuana illegal.

This Department of Justice statement came about a month after two Canadian firms announced they were interested in growing medicinal marijuana in the town of Bombay, NY area. In other words, Mohawk territory. Recently, the Huffington Post ran a piece putting forward the idea that 100 Indian nations were interested in working with enterprising cannabis companies. Of course, no one in Indian country has been able to name close to half that number of interested governments, and it turns out the assertion was put out there by the cannabis agricultural concerns themselves.

I would not get too excited about pot growing. Some of the East Coast’s best recreational marijuana has been grown in these parts for the last 30 years. The science behind growing pot professionally was first explored in the woods and hidden valleys of St. Lawrence and Franklin counties long before officials even realized it.

Since the war on drugs began, it would be hard to estimate how far back technological developments and science – soil science, genetics and hydro technology – were created by the war and harsh sentencing.

In most cases, as with gaming, successful recreational and medicinal marijuana production would eventually and quickly serve a saturated market, one with experienced growers ready and able to turn legal at the drop of a hat. It is a limited market and very competitive. The chance of making lots of money is slim. And capitalization of any company wanting to compete would be in the tens of millions of dollars.

However, industrial marijuana (hemp) is another story. In a world where environmental and exploration costs of fossil fuels has become increasingly burdensome, hemp has the potential to find a market niche here and abroad. Industrial hemp has less than 1% THC content (the stuff that gets one high) and its tough, fibrous stalk had many uses. Historically—and before the turn-of-the-century demonization of hemp and marijuana by the lumber and petroleum industries—it was used for ropes, building material, even dry wall, and is a sustainable source for cloth and paper.

America was built with hemp. This hardy weed grows everywhere thanks to the efforts of first the Jesuit missionaries, and was promoted by none other than Ben Franklin. The first American flag is made of hemp. The Declaration of Independence was written on, you guessed it, hemp. The United States Constitution is written on hemp paper. Given the legal, moral, and market hurdles presented by medical and recreational marijuana, it would be better for Indian nations to explore advanced technologies that will take advantage of the potential offered by hemp.

According to a recent story by Alysa Landry, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in California is poised to become the first American Indian tribe to grow medical marijuana, although investors claim at least 100 additional tribes are exploring their options. Pinoleville is expected to break ground on a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse within 60 days, said Barry Brautman, president of FoxBarry Companies, a group of Kansas-based operations that specialize in developing Native business enterprises.

RELATED: Proceed With Caution: A Warning to Tribes Wanting to Grow Medical Marijuana

Like our casino industry, the moneymakers are near urban areas. “California has the most fruitful market, but there’s opportunity in Florida and on the East Coast,” said Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech, a hydroponic farming company with operations in New Jersey and California. “We’re finding that the best markets are large areas with dense populations,” he said. “States with big populations but struggling marijuana programs.”

Anthony Broadman, a partner at Galanda Broadman, a Seattle-based, Native-owned law firm offered a cautious view. “There are lots of outside forces looking to take advantage of potential economic development in the tribal context,” he said. “So you would expect that the outside entities are looking to help, exploit, assist, develop, incubate—all the good and bad things that happen with development in Indian Country.”

The Mohawks and many other tribes and the agricultural people of our surrounding areas would be well advised to begin exploring the growing, manufacturing and marketing of industrial hemp. With restrictions loosening on marijuana, it’s time to explore our options. Currently, North American hemp needs are being satisfied by imported hemp. For a model of what can be done to establish hemp production here, look no further than plans produced by the state of Kentucky.

Ray Cook is ICTMN's opinions editor.