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  • Christopher Smith, Editor-in-Chief

Will Encroachment on Tribal Sovereignty Affect Their Cannabis Industries

My story today is a blend of several, all having to do with situations in Native American communities with regard to cannabis. The lead story is from the New Mexico Political Report


“For years, as conversations and debates in Congress and state legislatures about legalizing cannabis took place, an often-overlooked piece of the puzzle was what legalization meant for tribal governments.

“In most states that have legalized recreational-use cannabis, state governments have entered into agreements with sovereign nations, allowing tribes to set up their own cannabis programs. New Mexico recently signed on to two of those kinds of agreements, which allows both the Picuris and Pojoaque pueblos to grow and sell cannabis, which will presumably deter federal officials from intervening.”

The Picuris tribe mentioned has been threatened for years by local law enforcement, that they could be prosecuted for participating in the state’s legal medical marijuana program. “That fact became evident recently when a man who lived on Picuris land but is not a member, had his entire personal use grow raided by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents. Neither that man, nor the Picuris Pueblo was ever federally charged.” The hope is that the New Mexico agreement stops this kind of nonsense.


Keeping the US and state governments out of Indian affairs is a major theme these days. The US Supreme Court just ruled last month to expand a state’s rights over tribes in a case centered in Oklahoma. "To be clear, the court today holds that Indian country within a state's territory is part of a state, not separate from a state," Beer-Loving BadBoy Justice Brent Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.

The main effect of this ruling is to allow the States to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians on the land. But the larger theme of allowing States to have jurisdiction over tribes, which is a decision that scholars of Native American law said was a major departure from longstanding precedent.

As to how that relates to cannabis: In March, a coalition of nine U.S. senators sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging him to direct federal prosecutors to not interfere with marijuana legalization policies enacted by Native American tribes. “The senators urged the attorney general to “reinstate prosecutorial discretion and allow U.S. Attorneys to deprioritize cannabis enforcement where states and Tribes have legalized cannabis.”

Just last week, a Senate committee held a listening session about tribal issues, where cannabis was featured topic. Tribes attending included: “The Seneca Nation of Indians, the Suquamish Tribe, Pueblo of Laguna, Kumeyaay Nation, Puyallup Tribe and Santee Sioux Tribe.

“Overall, the new House cannabis provision … says that no federal funds appropriated to agencies within Interior, Justice Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs or Office of Justice Services could be used to “enforce federal laws criminalizing the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana against any person engaged in the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana in Indian country” where such activity is authorized.

“However, this new section comes with contingencies not seen before, including a policy stating that “Federal funds could still be used to interfere in tribal cannabis activity if the territory is located within a state that maintains prohibition, for example.

Which, again, is an infringement of tribal rights to self-determination. The question again is: Are the Tribes sovereign nations or not?

But the Supreme Court and Congress are saying NO… what does this mean when the tribes want to trade with each other?


Meanwhile, harkening back five years in Nevada, the Ely Shoshone Tribe and the Yerington Paiute Tribe entered cannabis compacts with the state. “Senate Bill 375 recognizes the authority of tribes to grow, sell and market marijuana in a state where the drug is legal for medicinal and recreational purposes.”

And finally, the Shinnecock Nation in New York, just broke ground in Southampton. Activist Chenae Bullock said, “What we’re doing with this sacred plant is going to heal not only the Shinnecock community, but people around the world. We’re giving this plant a voice again.” Let’s hope the white community shops there, and otherwise stays out of their way.


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