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Should Tribes Grow Pot on the Rez?

The smoke you see coming from tribal lands is no longer the stereotypical smoke signals. The smoke is coming from the mouths of Native people who are pro-legalization of marijuana, and from the ears of those who are against it. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but the debate is sparking up (so to speak).

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice released a memo stating that Indian tribes can grow and sell marijuana on their lands as long as they follow the same federal guidelines as states that have legalized “the ganja.” More than half the states have some form of law that legalizes pot – 23 states have legalized medical marijuana and Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have legalized recreational use. California, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire are apparently the next states on the horizon to legalize recreational use.

Now, back to the idea of tribes starting their own marijuana farms – one argument is that growing and selling pot could offer tribes another boost (i.e. tribal casinos) to their local economies. Another argument is that reservations and villages need another legalized recreational drug like they need another hole in the head.

“For me, it’s a drug,” said Ellen Fills the Pipe, Oglala Sioux Tribal Councilwoman and chair of the council’s law and order committee. Smell the Truth, an online news source dedicated to the coverage of medical marijuana and cannabis industries, described Fills the Pipe as the “owner of the most ironic tribal name in existence, (who) will likely oppose the newly relaxed law due to her background in law enforcement.”

 “My gut feeling is we’re most likely going to shoot it down,” said Fills the Pipe. I’m sure there was no pun intended for the law and order chairwoman.

The big questions are: Who is going to enforce the rules and regulations that have been laid down by the DOJ? What about all the anti-drug people on the rez whose work could be thwarted by a new tribal law legalizing marijuana? Don’t tribes need all the economic development opportunities they can get?

The Huffington Post recently printed the headline “More Than 100 Native American Tribes Consider Growing Marijuana.”

"Tribes want what any government wants for its people, and that's financial independence," said Barry Brautman, CEO of FoxBarry Farms. "They want to earn their own money, provide education, health care and housing. This new industry allows them to be more economically independent."

FoxBarry Farms, along with the Denver-based United Cannabis Corp., recently inked a contract to build a giant medical marijuana growing operation on the Pinoleville Pomo Nation's ranch in Northern California. The $10 million, 2.5-acre facility will include spaces for cultivating, processing and selling products under the United Cannabis brand. Brautman said the operation plans to hire 50 to 100 employees, with preference to tribal members.

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Troy Dayton, the CEO of the marijuana research firm ArcView, told HuffPost that the Pomo Nation operation likely marks a much bigger trend. "It makes a lot of sense," he said. "It's the right move that Native American lands have been opened up to the same freedoms that states have…my hunch is that this is the beginning of something larger."

Of course, people who are already in the marijuana growing and selling business are looking at tribal lands with dollar signs in their eyes. But a recent Gallup Poll shows that a majority of people in the United States are in favor of legalizing recreational pot. I think a majority of Native people I know would not necessarily protest if recreational pot were legalized in their state and/or their reservation lands.

According to DOJ, it will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:

  • the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Perhaps the first thing to consider when thinking about whether your tribe should grow and sell weed is the current law in your state. If marijuana is still illegal within your state, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for your tribe to legalize it because as soon as a purchaser left the rez they could be charged with possession of a controlled substance. If you’re located within one of the four states that have legalized recreational use, my advice is pay attention to detail.

But if your state has legalized medical marijuana your tribe could grow it and sell it to medical marijuana dispensaries and could undercut other non-Indian growers because pot grown on tribal lands would not be subject to state taxes. But there is a lot to consider as far as the social costs and probably even security costs. Can you imagine all the pot smokers wanting to rob your crop?

I remember speaking at a high school academy in Virginia when I worked for United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) and I was asked by a student “what do ya’ll put in peace pipes?” My first response was “it’s not pot.” But later I reflected on this common assumption by folks who are not familiar with our cultural practices. Could it be that’s why many of our people who smoke the pipe are sometimes described as stoic? I’ll leave it at that before I get in over my head.

Do I support tribes growing and selling marijuana? As a working journalist, I’m better off trying to maintain my objectivity but I’ll give you a hint. Last summer I bought a tank top at the flea market with an image of Bob Marley smoking a joint and underneath is written two words: “One Love.” I wear it as much as possible.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.