The American Family of Governments. Sourced from NCIA.
The cannabis industry presents a unique economic opportunity to all varieties of people. However, to gain access to it, certain groups like Native American Tribes must overcome formidable obstacles.
According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), there are “574 federally recognized Indian Nations […] in the United States.”
Self-governed and sovereign, these nations exercise their rights by developing their own forms of government; determining who receives citizenship; and most importantly, establishing their own criminal and civil laws, reports the NCAI. Thus, the issue of cannabis legality on a state level versus within a Tribe creates conflict.
The cannabis industry presents a bountiful economic opportunity to Native American nations and their members, who by and large “have not benefited from the broader U.S. economic recovery[,] which has led to historic low unemployment,” reports New Frontier Data.
In communities where Indigenous peoples can grow on native-owned land, opportunities to cultivate and sell cannabis are particularly attractive. Joining this business could not only increase employment but revitalize the local economy.
For example, “in Western states that have already legalized marijuana, Native Tribes that operate as sovereign nations have found the marijuana industry to be a path to [the] creation of new jobs, generation of tax revenues and redevelopment of communities that have often suffered economic hardship,” reports South Dakota News Watch.
What’s Stopping Native Americans from Entering Cannabis Industry?
With such benefits, it’s unsurprising that more Tribes are getting involved in the production and sale of cannabis. However, Native American nations still face obstacles that often prevent or limit their abilities to enter the industry.
One main issue concerns the legality of cannabis in the U.S. Currently, cannabis is still an illegal substance under federal law, despite its widespread decriminalization and legalization within individual states. However, after Washington and Colorado voters legalized cannabis in 2012, the Indian American Indian Law Journal reports that the Department of Justice (DOJ) released the Cole and Wilkinson memos.
To oversimplify, the Cole Memo de-prioritized the spending of federal funds for prosecuting state-approved medical cannabis programs. The memo states that despite state legalization, the federal government considers cannabis a “dangerous drug.” In addition, explains the DOJ should focus their limited resources on the illegal cannabis market.
The memos, which officials later rescinded, also “opened discussion on tribal sovereignty as pertaining to cannabis legalization and the federal government’s non-interference policies on Indian reservations,” reports the journal.
Essentially, the DOJ told Native American Tribes that they could “grow and sell marijuana on their lands as long [as] they followed the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug.”
However, the Wilkinson Memo maintained that the federal government had the authority to prosecute a Tribe or Tribal member criminally.
An Impossible Concession
This legal limbo is problematic for many reasons. First, it’s difficult for Tribes to enter the cannabis industry if their land exists within states where it’s illegal. However, even in states where it’s legal in some form, Tribes seemingly must choose between their rights or economic revitalization.
For example, in 2018 NBC reported that Tribes were “cut out” of the California cannabis market. To obtain a state license to sell/grow cannabis, Tribes would “have to follow state rules, including ‘submission to all enforcement,’ [and every] application must include a waiver of ‘sovereign immunity.’”
In other words, Tribes must abandon their rights as self-governing nations in order to participate in the state-regulated cannabis market.
The historical and ethical implications of this subjection have led Native leaders to consider “setting up rival farms and sales shops on reservations[,] concluding that rules requiring them to be licensed by the state would strip them of authority over their own lands,” NBC further reported.
One Tribe has followed through on this consideration. In January of 2019, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel opened a cannabis dispensary inside what once was the Tribe’s casino, reports the San Diego Tribune. Without a state license, no off-reservation sales or shipments are possible. However, since a “license is not needed as long as the activity is contained within the sovereign nation,” the Tribune reports, the Iipay Nation is helping pave the way for other Tribes who may find that their respective state governments are uncooperative.
Here To Help
Native American Tribes face difficulties entering the cannabis industry. This is particularly obvious in their dealings with state governments regarding legality and sovereignty. Fortunately, there are organizations whose mission is to assist Tribes who want to join or already belong to the industry.
For instance, there’s The National Indian Cannabis Coalition (NICC). The NICC’s stated goal is “to inform and educate tribal leaders on […] emerging regulated cannabis markets […],” reported Ganjapreneur.
It’s free for Tribes to join the coalition. Members can get information about cannabis cultivation and sales; “startup financing for cannabis-related operations;” “the process of acquiring […] operational permits and business registry;” and “the construction of buildings for these operations,” stated the NICC.
Additionally, there’s the National Native American Cannabis Association (NNACA). Their goal: “help establish high standards and provide quality services for those in the Native American cannabis industry,” reports Emerald.
Furthermore, the NNACA highlights that while “each tribal jurisdiction has the authority to set their own standards […] many don’t have or use state standards as a starting point in developing their regulations,” reports Native Nation Events. Thus, the NNACA helps establish the “base standards” for cannabis.
Similarly, Native Gro assists Tribes entering the industry. According to a press release, the cannabis management solution company recently launched a “one-stop-shop for integrated indoor cannabis grow, convenience store, and dispensary management.”
By combining these resources, Native Gro assists Tribes “who want to take advantage of cannabis opportunities without having to do all of the research, labor, and growth operations themselves,” reports Cision.
There are also state and local equity programs (LEPs). LEPs, like Humboldt County, California’s Project Trellis, aim to help communities most affected by the War on Drugs, including Native populations.
Looking to the Future
With the assistance of organizations such as these, Tribes will have help in their potential participation in the cannabis industry. This business promises employment and economic revitalization not only for Tribal communities but also local and state areas.
And hopefully in the future, Native American Tribes will not have to trade their rights or dignity to participate in state-facilitated industries.
Emerald encourages consumers to support these organizations and Native-owned businesses by checking out our list of 100+ Indigenous-Owned Cannabis Businesses.
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