Indigenous Nations within America’s borders hold various views regarding cannabis legalization and implementation although several dozen tribes have implemented or legalized cannabis in medical or adult-use form. Still, many are opposed to entering the space for various reasons.
The constant, oft-confusing, multi-layered state and federal laws that conflict with sovereign tribal law doesn’t help matters. Indigenous communities often experience the short-end of the regulatory stick, contending with state and federal regulators while left to their own resources, short on government support.
With cannabis, a plant that has never been illegal in their eyes, some Nations see a chance to provide medicine, jobs and revenue to their communities. However, sources note that their communities largely remain outside the legal U.S. marketplace, left to operate on Indigenous land away from the state businesses. Still, some are taking advantage of the law and finding opportunities for their communities.
Just a few hundred words can’t fully detail the potential benefits and hardships various Indigenous communities face when pondering cannabis legalization. Consider this an overview of a much broader issue in need of explanation.
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Indian Nation viewpoints vary
Indian Nations, like any other group, have a wide expanse of views on just about every topic and that includes cannabis.
Chenae Bullock is the managing director of Shinnecock Nation’s soon-to-open dispensary and vertically integrated venture Little Beach Harvest in the New York area. Bullock told Benzinga that history shows how tribal applications and views of the plant differ by community as she highlighted Shinnecock Nation’s long history with the plant, using it for medicine and cordage. Their history will soon include an effort to become the destination for cannabis in the affluent Southampton, New York region.
Shinnecock wholly owns its venture, operating entirely on their land, collaborating with cannabis tech and infrastructure company TILT Holdings Inc. Bullock added that colonization and subsequent laws created plant misunderstandings among some communities. “Due to forced assimilation and laws that were created against our way of living, sometimes the understanding of the plant is different from one tribe to another.”
Indigenous groups bound by U.S. law despite sovereignty
Indigenous communities find themselves in contentious circumstances with local and federal authorities, despite their status as sovereign Nations.
Compacts are critical for Indigenous tribes and the surrounding governments to cooperate on complex policies, like gaming and cannabis. Three states, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, have entered into state-tribal cannabis compacts with varying rules. Other Nations are left to consider launching with uncertain local and national legal outcomes.
In Washington, tribes are permitted to cooperate with state authorities without being controlled by them. In California, the state must regulate a tribe’s facility if they want to participate in the marketplace, leaving most Nations concerned about further U.S. overreach on their land.
“Tribes in California, we can’t even participate in the legal market, even though we’re tribal governments,” said Tina Braithwaite, a consultant and former chairwoman of the Uta Uta Gwaitu Paiute Tribe in the Benton, California area. She noted that the state views the Nations as businesses rather than equal governments.
To avoid situations like what occurred in California, some experts recommend tribes establish laws that resemble protocols of the legalized state marketplace around them.
Bullock added that relationships are a critical factor as well. “Depending on the relationship that the tribe has with the non-tribal government, I think is where they try to begin to wrap their mind around how were they going to maneuver in and what is a colonized state.”
Rita Montoya, a Baltimore-based attorney and member of the Opata tribe, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, said the U.S. government is largely or wholly responsible for the plight of Native Nations today. Yet, as equity becomes more apparent to the public, Montoya said the U.S. still holds Nations back on cannabis. “We need their recognition to even gain entry into this market on our land.”
Montoya added that Indigenous people often live outside their Nation, spreading out an already decimated Indian Nation population estimated to be between two and 6.5 million people.
In her call for additional inclusion measures for tribes as well as Indigenous entrepreneurs, Montoya highlighted the parallels between Indigenous and Black communities, noting that both have been “Stomped on and told to get up on our own…then the gates to all the resources are padlocked.”
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Education gaps frequent and persistent
Closing education gaps could be one of the first steps to adequate inclusion, sources say. Braithwaite suggested that U.S. lawmakers could start by attending tribal meetings.
Montoya added that tribal elders and leaders often meet with staff aids rather than state or federal lawmakers, resulting in mixed or dropped messages along the way.
“You get the tribal leaders to the table and the state sends its messengers,” Montoya said, adding that hiring more Indigenous experts would help address inclusion and education gaps.
“There is a level of cultural competency and education that this industry needs,” Montoya said. “You can get the competency and education that you need, but you need to pay for the experts just like you would anything else.”