American Indians See Huge Opportunities in Marijuana Industry

112715_American Indians See Huge Opportunities in Marijuana Industry 

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Marijuana may not yet be considered legal in South Dakota, but Tony Reider, the president of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota, is planning to open the state’s first ever pot lounge at the end of the year. Modeled after Amsterdam coffee shops, the pot lounge will allow consumers to buy and smoke up to two grams of weed per day, even though South Dakota bans the sale, possession, and public smoking of pot.

But if it’s illegal, why would Reider have the guts to break the law?

He’s probably not breaking the law, as a federal memo released late last year by the United States Department of Justice allowed 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes to start growing and selling Mary Jane on their lands. It extends the same policy that the federal government has applied to states that have legalized marijuana, as long as businesses avoid drug violations like selling marijuana to minors.

Reider’s Flandreau Santee Sioux is one the first Native American tribes to take advantage of the memo. “There’s great economic advantages, and medicinal value,” Reider said. “Plus, with any business venture, the first to market can corner the market early.”

Marty Jackley, South Dakota’s attorney general, has already said in a press release that Flandreau Santee Sioux’s business model would be breaking state law. But Reider seems undeterred as he wants to help his tribe get ahead of the burgeoning marijuana industry.

“We look at what happened in Washington where the state has legalized it,” he said. “The tribes are forced to either play catch up or wonder if they can even compete in that arena.”

Too Risky

But the Flandreau Santee Sioux is not alone. Last February, representatives from more than 75 tribes attended a conference in Washington State to discuss opportunities in the legal marijuana industry. Though excitement was running high at first, many tribes eventually cooled down on the idea because of the risks involved in many marijuana undertakings.

For one, the memorandum is not a law. Last July, California state and federal agents searched the Alturus Indian Rancheria tribe and the Pit River tribe in northern California because they received tips that the tribes are possibly tied up with a foreign national, suggesting that they intend to sell marijuana outside their boundaries even though it is expressly prohibited.

Furthermore, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma introduced the “Keeping out Illegal Drugs Act of 2015” last August, which prohibits Indian tribes that grow, produce, or sell weed on Indian land from receiving funding from the federal government.

“Most tribes are cautious,” said Robert Williams, a professor at University of Arizona law school who specializes in Indian law. “They are sitting back and seeing what happens to a couple tribes that jump on the barbed wire fence.”

Attractive Revenue

Wisconsin’s Menominee tribe is also testing the cannabis waters, even though the substance is still banned in the state. The tribal council recently held a referendum on marijuana legalization, with 58 percent of their voters supporting recreational marijuana and 77 percent supporting medicinal weed.

The tribe’s motive is simple: additional revenue. After all, the 360-square-mile reservation that the tribe occupies is the poorest in Wisconsin.

“Menominee doesn’t have the luxury to not research potential revenue sources,” said Gary Besaw, the Menominee tribal chairman. “At the very least we had to take a look at this.”

But aside from the potential revenue, one of Menominee’s reasons for exploring weed opportunities is the high rates of PTSD, cancer, and chronic pain within its tribe, especially among veterans. All of these illnesses can purportedly be eased by marijuana. The tribe also sees cannabis as a less dangerous alternative to painkillers.

Legal Dilemmas

Wisconsin’s attorney general, Brad Schimel, is sympathetic to Menominee, although he admits that it will be hard for them. “You add into this dynamic that Menominee are the poorest tribe in the state and they are indigenous to Wisconsin, so you want to be able to see them try it,” he said. “We are going to enforce the law in Wisconsin, but I’m also not intending to blow this out of proportion.”

Williams added that the memo puts American Indian tribes in an atrocious position. “For many tribes the only hope of economic development is in marginal, vice-ridden, semi-criminal activities,” he said. “To have the Justice Department say, ‘Here is another opportunity, you guys take the risk if you want to do it. We are not going to give you any guidance’ – it’s incredibly irresponsible.”

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