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Tribal Marijuana Conference: ‘A 10-Year Window for Tribes to Capitalize’

The first Tribal Marijuana Conference was packed with presentations and panels advancing the discussion of legalized marijuana in Indian country.

On February 28 some 75 tribal leaders from across the country met to discuss forming the first “Tribal Cannabis Association” at the Tulalip Resort Casino on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State.

This followed a packed day on February 27 of “Tribal Marijuana Conference” presentations and panels with speakers as diverse as former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid (current chair of President Barack Obama’s National Indian Law and Order Commission) to the city attorneys of both Seattle and Boulder, Colorado, who gave in-depth overviews of how implementation of state laws legalizing marijuana possession and usage is proceeding in their respective cities.

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The conference was organized by Robert Odawi Porter of Odawi Law PLLC, a former President of the Seneca Nation of New York, and Washington state cannabis business attorneys Hilary Bricken and Robert McVay of Harris Moure.

“This issue was a historic moment for the United States and what the Justice Department did was to invite Indian country to have a historical moment. No different than any other major decision our ancestors have had to make,” Porter said. “Tribal leaders are now going to have the same opportunity to think through whether legalizing marijuana was a good thing. I’m hopeful that today’s event was part of a beginning process of providing quality information and informing leadership, informing their employers and other staff and community members and, hopefully, continue that process in the coming days and weeks.”

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Porter was referring to the memo issued by the Department of Justice in October 28, 2014 instructing all U.S. attorneys to not pursue prosecution of federally recognized tribes that choose to legalize and regulate marijuana if they meet priorities laid out in a memorandum issued by Deputy Attorney General Cole on August 29, 2013. These include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors and preventing revenue of sale of marijuana to criminal enterprises.

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However, former U.S. Attorney Eid remains cautious, “I think it is very good for tribes to look at and think about how they might want to influence changes in the federal law. Having said that, there are no changes in federal law here…. The nine different criteria that they laid out are not sufficient to provide protections to tribes or tribal members, tribal citizens. So, you are really rolling the dice.”

Another speaker, Douglas Berman, professor of law at Ohio State University and author of the widely read and cited Sentencing Law and Policy blog, disputed Eid’s concerns: “Technically, it’s a violation of federal law when I put together my March Madness bracket but in a million years I don’t expect federal authorities to come knocking on my door and to say stop doing that.”

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He made a comparison to the growth in online gambling where companies found work-arounds, and due to the uncertainty at the federal level they could be confident that by conducting their business “low-scale and respectful of federal concerns,” federal enforcement was unlikely.

Seattle City attorney Pete Holmes opened his presentation with a daring question, "As a city attorney...why am I advocating for legalization?"

Salvador Mungia, ACLU-W cooperating attorney stated that his goal as one of the 10 sponsors of Washington state's Initiative 502 that legalized recreational marijuana sales in the state "was to take marijuana distribution out of the hands of the criminal element.” He added, “I've never even smoked marijuana."

Boulder’s City Attorney Thomas Carr emphasized planning and screening of marijuana businesses. His experience has been that the strict enforcement of business licensing requirements “weeded out” potential bad business operators so much so that today, 79 marijuana businesses have joined the Chamber of Commerce. And the Chamber, which had previously opposed legalization, now supports it.

But banking still remains an issue and the all-cash nature of the business is a real danger. Carr noted that Boulder’s City Hall is no longer open to the public because the large amount of cash ($3 million last year) they must take in from the marijuana business owners requires greater security.

Bricken, a cannabis attorney in Washington state and one of the organizers of the conference, was a strong advocate for tribes entering into the marijuana banking services industry. She told the audience, “I think tribes can be first to market here. I really do.”

“These are entities,” she explained. “These are sovereigns that are experienced in business; they have a lot of experience with regulation [so] a bank absolutely makes sense.”

She noted Credit Unions, although equally as well-regulated as larger banks, have been taking it on, but it is still not enough. The industry still needs more lending.

State Senator Tick Segerblom from Nevada, the father of Nevada’s 2013 Medical Marijuana law, SB 374, and co-chair of Nevada’s recreational marijuana initiative Treat it Like Alcohol warned, “The opposition has disappeared in this is 10 years before it is legal everywhere. There is a 10-year window for tribes to capitalize on this."

Amanda Reiman, Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance in California, reminded those gathered that cannabis could help Native American communities battling addiction.

Reiman has conducted post-doctoral research on drug-purchasing behaviors, alcohol-control policies and medical marijuana for the Alcohol Research Group through the National Institute of Health and found that “cannabis can help people with dependency on alcohol and other narcotics.”

Les Parks, Vice Chairman of Tulalip Tribe Board of Directors, shared a video of a local Seattle television news report on the medical marijuana extract CBD that is used to relieve epileptic seizures and predicted a future for tribes in the pharmaceutical industry: "We [tribes] can lead this country in CBD drug development."

The key, as the tribal leaders noted while meeting the following day to consider forming a Tribal Cannabis Association, is ensuring that all federally recognized tribes successfully meet regulations outlined by the Justice Department memo. Key to this is meeting with each local U.S. attorney and coming to an agreement with boundaries of enforcement.

However, Henry Cagey, Council member and former Chairman of the Lummi Nation, noted that they had extended an invitation to Seattle’s U.S. attorney for this conference but had received no response.

RELATED: Tribal Leaders to Discuss Formation of Tribal Cannabis Association

There will be a follow-up meeting on March 12 at 2 p.m. on the last day of RES (the Reservation Economic Summit) in Las Vegas. There, duly authorized representatives of tribes will meet and share feedback from their tribal councils, youth and courts. 

Larry Sault, a Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation Councillor from Ontario, Canada questioned when federally recognized U.S. tribes would honor their 1999 agreement with the First Nations chiefs to coordinate a North American trade association. He also noted that legalization was proceeding quickly in Canada and that the market will be much bigger than just the United States. His nation is equity partners with Weed MD, one of Canada’s top providers of medical marijuana and is looking for Native American partners in the U.S.

A Hawaiian Cannabis Consultant, Scott David asked that the Hawaiian Sovereign Nation be allowed to participate in the Las Vegas meeting in light of their impending federal recognition.

“I learned a lot, taking back a lot to share with the tribal members,” George Thurman, Principal Chief of the Sak and Fox Nation said. “We are still up in the air about whether we are going to do it or not.” Oklahoma has just passed a medical marijuana law and his tribe would look at pursuing a "seed-to-sale” business model. They are located midway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa and are looking to diversify from gaming to other avenues of revenue.

William Anderson, former Chief of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, had a personal story to share about the medical applications of cannabis. He had a foot infection that went to his spine and had to get a spinal replacement of titanium steel in his back. For two years he battled an infection, and the creams that the doctors prescribed were ineffectual, leaving him unable to walk and in constant pain. Indian Health Service recommended amputation of his foot.

“I just prayed to the Great Creator and said, ‘Please just help me function as a normal human being.' Then I recalled a documentary I had seen years ago about the use of medical marijuana for cancer patients.” He used it as an oil topically and he felt immediate relief of his pain and was able to walk again.

“I’m really grateful to be here today, to just talk and to shake hands with people. This is what I want to bring to Indian people out there. To show that there are other ways to get help.”

Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler