Growing the Herb: Marijuana and Indian Country


“I think that decriminalizing recreational use would benefit our people greatly since so many of us use it and many have been incarcerated for possessing it. The tribes certainly could gain by better controlling how it exists within our communities as well as financially with sales and possible taxation … We have retained aboriginal rights to utilize medicines within our communities the way we see fit.”

Martin Reinhardt, Professor at Northern Michigan University

It’s time to reconsider the regulation of marijuana and hemp. With the Pineole Pomo Tribe of California initiating the first tribal commercial marijuana grow operation and the Department of Justice’s announcement that it would not prosecute for marijuana or hemp, the door has been opened to look at the regulatory scheme. This December, Justice Department Director Monty Wilkinson announced, “The eight priorities in the Cole memorandum will guide United States Attorneys’ marijuana enforcement efforts in Indian Country, including in the event that sovereign Indian nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country.”

In turn, the Pomo tribe, which is located in Mendicino County, one of the largest marijuana growing counties in the country, announced a commercial venture with two partners, Colorado-based United Cannabis and Kansas-based FoxBarry Farms. The 250-member tribe announced that it will grow thousands of plants for the medical marijuana business on its 99-acre reservation.

What’s the catch? There are a lot of them, especially in any states which have not yet legalized marijuana. U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, for instance, said that the DOJ will retain the right to prosecute individuals who engage in the distribution of marijuana to minors, where revenue is going to criminal enterprises, drugged driving or diversion to a state where it is not legal.

While some tribes are looking to this as a highly lucrative business, others are considering just the local economics and pros and cons of the industry. In the least on the cautious side, tribal police are already pretty busy and under funded, so the keeping of marijuana to within reservation borders, may be a bit of a challenge for any regulatory authority. And that “ Driving While Indian” thing that occurs when you leave the reservation boundaries is, well, going to be supremely tested if tribes go ahead. There is, not an easy path in any case.

The Economics

I am told that 40 percent of my community smokes the herb. The fact is we’re spending millions of dollars a year importing marijuana from, largely unsavory characters onto the reservation, creating a great loss to our tribal economy. This is undeniable in every reservation. I haven’t done complete studies, but in order to buy marijuana from dealers elsewhere, conservative estimates indicate $60,000 a week is draining from the my own reservation, White Earth. With a little math, it looks like around $3 million annually is drained from the reservation for purchases.

That is coming out of tribal pockets; pockets in some of the poorest counties in the state. That is part of our challenge. Could tribes stop that economic drain with a local marijuana economy? There are some larger economic benefits, for both hemp or marijuana, as well as risks.

Hemp Economics

Over 30 nations grow industrial hemp today, including Canada, France, England, Russia, China, Germany and Australia. China is the largest producer of industrial hemp. On the other side, the the largest consumer of hemp products, with total annual retail sales in 2013 of $580 million. Between 60 and 90 percent of the raw hemp materials imported into the U.S. come from Canada, which legalized hemp production in 1998.

This is some old stuff. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. I don’t know if our treaties were written on hemp paper, but it’s possible. Both the Navajo Nation and the Oglala Sioux Council passed ordinances and resolutions on hemp. But at that time, the Drug Enforcement Agency came down with a heavy hand – particularly on the White Plume Tiospaye in Pine Ridge – which grew 0 percent THC hemp, from 2000 to 2002, on their family allotments.

That crop had been legalized by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, however, in all three years, the crops were raided by DEA SWAT teams destroying thousands of dollars worth of seed. Federal prosecutions were extensive, but the family escaped imprisonment, but was barred from any more hemp farming. Ironically, the raids had dispersed seed throughout their land and the crops remain today, although the family is barred from harvest. That was then, it’s not clear what that means in light of the change in Justice Department policy.

Marijuana Math

Tribal communities would be unable, under the present regulatory scheme, to sell marijuana off-reservation unless the surrounding state legalized marijuana. This is the case of the Pomo, or a tribe in any state with medical or recreational use. The licensing issue is not clear as of yet, but when the state of Minnesota held its informational meeting on the new medical marijuana policy, regulatory officials stated that tribal sovereignty would dictate growing in that state, but no word on distribution or sales off-reservation. This is likely to be determined in the upcoming year. The question of a local tribal economy in marijuana, however is worth some considering.

The Marijuana economy, however, is a robust deal in Colorado. The state of Colorado is likely to haul in around $43 million this year from marijuana taxes. That is a 27 percent tax on marijuana and that’s taxes, not business. It’s got a huge ripple through the economy for sure, from growers to hydroponic suppliers to bakers. Colorado is sort of unique in its situation and demographics, but it’s a booming industry.


The Costs of Marijuana Prosecution

Marijuana has accounted for nearly half of all total drug arrests in the U.S. for the past 20 years, according to the FBI’s crime statistics. Washington state data indicated that the arrest rates grew substantially until in 2010, arrests were three times that of two decades before. The majority of those arrested were white and young, but Natives were arrested at a rate of 1.6 times higher than that of whites, although African Americans were arrested at twice that rate. The possession arrests, according to a Washington state study were at about $200 million in a decade ending in 2010. That’s an expensive proposition; it also is a social problem. A marijuana possession arrest creates a permanent criminal record, easily found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. A criminal record for the “drug crime” of marijuana possession creates barriers to employment and education for anyone, including whites and the middle class.

There is also the question of tribal enforcement priorities. I talked to tribal officers on White Earth reservation who told me, in effect, that they had a lot more important things to do than arrest tribal citizens for possession of marijuana. This makes some sense, considering the rest of the domestic violence, DUI and other issues in tribal communities.

There are also employment issues for tribes to regulate when it comes to drug testing for employment at any federally-funded tribal facility (that is all of them). “We sign an agreement to be a drug-free workplace,” Tara Mason, Secretary Treasurer of White Earth tells me when I ask her about the regulations, “that is not going to work well.” It appears that those who would work for tribal agencies should not smoke marijuana and that would not change. “A lot of us don’t work for the tribe,” another tribal employer tells me which, I assume, is true in most reservations.

Drug Wars

Bad date idea: Taking your mother to see Oliver Stone’s “Savages.” It was horribly violent, drove home the deadly price of the drug wars and how much I love Benicio Del Toro. Put it this way, since 2007, around 80,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the fighting between drug cartels and Mexico’s armed forces, according to Reuters. And according to the Department of Justice, a large portion of the U.S. illegal drug market is controlled directly by Mexican cartels.

In 2012, a study by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute found that U.S. state legalization would cut into cartel business and take over about 30 percent of their market. Vice News did an interview with retired DEA officer Terry Nelson and found that legalization was effecting the drug trafficking and cartels.

“The cartels are criminal organizations that were making as much as 35-40 percent of their income from marijuana,” Nelson said, “They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the U.S. now.” Minnesota’s Native Mob has historically been involved in marijuana, as well as a host of other drugs and weapons. While prosecutions landed many leaders of the mob behind bars in 2010-13, it is not clear in a state, like Minnesota what the effect on Native gang activity would be and that is worth considering.

Addictions and More Addictions

“It is a powerful medicine. Like sugar, and alcohol abuse creates family problems. Feel we should always have the choice of what we put into our bodies. ”

Rachel Montour Ballard, Akwesasne

I surveyed a lot of people, on the question of addictions and the impact of legalization and got many opinions. What we know is that our tribal communities suffer from epidemics of addictions. We alter our consciousness because of many things: the pain of historic trauma, boredom, lack of cultural and community strength and because we like it. The root causes of our drive, need to be changed, that is long term work and healing. We need solutions to our problems and we all know that drinking a six pack or smoking a bowl is not going to make your life better. It might help you forget for a few hours, but we have to change our communities and ourselves.

Frankly, it’s easier to get IHS prescription drugs on the reservation and snort them up your nose, than probably anywhere else in the country and that’s been a pretty bad idea. Sam Moose, Mille Lac Band Commissioner of Health and Human Services, talks about the epidemic which is claiming new victims in the Mille Lacs area: babies born addicted to opiates, both prescription painkillers and illegal drugs like heroin.

According to Moose, the reservation is one of the hardest hit communities in Minnesota. Twenty-eight percent of babies with NAS in Minnesota are born to Native Americans, even though Native Americans make up only about 2 percent of the state’s population. In other words, American Indian newborns are 8.7 times more likely than white babies to be born with NAS. Add to that FAS, and we’ve got a pretty dire situation for the next generation.

What would marijuana do to this? Dr. Melissa Gorake, told me, “As a researcher of FASD and a now doctor of clinical psychology, I truly believe – on a personal community and societal level – that legalizing marijuana will decrease rates of FASD expression within our communities, hands down. Access to marijuana will decrease women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy, which is the most violent teratogen to brain development which lasts a lifetime. It’s a start and its simplistic, but it’s something.” That’s an interesting thought, but many people remain opposed to “ transferring addictions.” At the same time, from my limited survey, marijuana use is pretty prevalent on the reservations.

The Highest Risk for Marijuana: Teenage Boy

“It is extremely rare to see kids who are chronically using pot doing well in school,” Dr. Brett Neinebar, a family and emergency ward physician near Brainerd, Minn., told me.

It might have to do with this neuro-transmitter called dopamine. “Dopamine is the neuro-transmitter which is associated with the rewards center of your brain. If you do something well, like get an ‘A,’ or win a race, you get a good feeling and that stimulates the reward system. Marijuana stunts that. Because those who get that reward tend to be high achievers, the loss of it is a problem. Marijuana use really stamps out the dopamine.” In layperson terms, it’s sort of like when your kid says “whatever” and rolls their eyes and that becomes permanent. How horrible.

A new medical study quantifies this. “This study suggests that even light to moderate recreational marijuana use can cause changes in brain anatomy,” Dr. Carl Lupica, Ph.D. at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. “These observations are particularly interesting because previous studies have focused primarily on the brains of heavy marijuana smokers and have largely ignored the brains of casual users.”

The team of scientists compared the size, shape and density of the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala – a brain region that plays a central role in emotion – in 20 marijuana users and 20 non-users. Each marijuana user was asked to estimate their drug consumption over a three-month period, including the number of days they smoked and the amount of the drug consumed each day. The scientists found that the more the marijuana users reported consuming, the greater the abnormalities in the nucleus accumbens and amygdala. The shape and density of both of these regions also differed between marijuana users and non-users.

Marijuana can also cause an early onset of schizophrenia in young men, who are genetically pre-disposed to it. “And normally you would have gotten it at 25,” Dr. Neinebar explains, “you will more likely get your first psychotic break at 13, which is a problem because the longer you have it the more debilitating it is. The problem is that schizophrenics and people who are pre disposed to it are really drawn to drug abuse.”

Marijuana is a medicine

Marijuana or peje (a nice Lakota word for grass), does not solve all problems. It does not cure everything, make you prettier or smarter. It is a plant and it is a medicine. As much as our community deals with tobacco abuse, tobacco as a medicine or peyote as a medicine, everyone agrees that we need to restore our relationship to our plant relatives in a respectful manner. Indigenous peoples know plants have spirit and power and need to be addressed with reverence. Abuse is always not going to work out well.

There’s clear evidence of the benefits of marijuana in the treatment and pain relief of glaucoma, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, seizures, PTSD (and remember we have the highest number of living veterans of any community) and a host of other medical conditions. My friend Kevin Shore suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and he is struggling with a host of major medical conditions.

“Actually they call it rheumatoid variant disease at the VA, because, like in Vietnam, they don’t want to call it an Agent Orange syndrome. They tried putting me on morphine, oxycodone, all of that didn’t work well. I found that cannabis was the least harmful to my body as the side effects go,” Shore said. Because he is being treated by the Veterans Administration, he cannot smoke marijuana, or take it in any form. So the VA provides him with a synthetic form of marijuana. “ I’m hoping to have a good case, because a federally-recognized doctor has prescribed synthetic THC.” While medical studies indicate that marijuana is helpful in many cases, it is, clearly not a panacea for all illnesses.

Exploiting the Plant

Some of the heaviest cultural criticism if the plant is grown would be the exploitation of the plant. For instance, today, probably about 90 percent of the marijuana available in commercial or black markets is grown with chemicals, much of it indoors, pushing the plants to their capacity. It’s sort of like a feedlot of industrial marijuana farming.

I traveled to Denver this past year and did some window shopping at facilities. At one organic marijuana retailer I asked what they used. The salesman didn’t know and there was, in my limited review, little interest in that discussion. The environmental impact of larger cultivation is comparable to other industrial agriculture, adding energy use of grow houses. Washington and Oregon are projecting a surge in power use, simply from grow houses. Slow grow, outdoors and organic is pretty much the preference of the connoisseurs and illustrates the conflicting relationship with the plant: commercial, medicinal, home use, etc.

A Regulatory Scheme

What is clear is that regulation is essential. Either we, as tribes keep the same historic criminal standards for marijuana and hemp, or we change them. In either case, we still regulate.

Oregon’s recently passed law explains that state’s reasons for legalization and offers an example. (a) To eliminate the problems caused by the prohibition and uncontrolled manufacture,

delivery, and possession of marijuana within this state; (b) To protect the safety, welfare, health, and peace of the people of this state by prioritizing the state’s limited law enforcement resources in the most effective, consistent, and rational way; (c) To permit persons licensed, controlled, regulated, and taxed by this state to legally manufacture and sell marijuana to persons 21 years of age and older, subject to the provisions of this Act; (d) To ensure that the State Department of Agriculture issues industrial hemp licenses and agricultural hemp seed production permits in accordance with existing state law; and (e) To establish a comprehensive regulatory framework concerning marijuana under existing state law.

So to make it happen, Oregon’s Control, Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act removes penalties for adults, 21 years-old and older who possess, use and grow a limited amount of marijuana.

Once the law takes effect, adults can possess up to eight ounces of marijuana and grow no more than four marijuana plants in their households. Those amounts are total limits for the household. Each adult can possess up to an ounce in public. Individuals 21 and older may also gift – but not sell – up to an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana products in solid form, or 72 ounces of marijuana products in liquid form to other adults. The purchase limit will be one ounce or the amount set by the liquor commission, whichever is lower.

Four types of marijuana businesses will be allowed and regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. “Marijuana producers” will cultivate marijuana for wholesale. “Marijuana processors” will produce marijuana extracts and products. “Marijuana wholesalers” may purchase marijuana and marijuana products to sell to marijuana retailers and other non-consumers. Lastly, “marijuana retailers” are allowed to sell marijuana and related items to individuals 21 and older. Application fees will be $250 and licensing fees are $1,000 per year.

Talking about it is key. Careful regulation, honesty and courage may be an answer.

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