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


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


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


“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.