From the Editor's Desk: Look before leaping into cannabis
Thursday, February 05 2015
Written by Alfred Walking Bull, The Circle Managing Editor,
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whats_new_-_walfred_walking_bull.jpgAnyone who sits through any tribal council meeting knows well the time and measure of deliberation of any issue in Indian Country. In South Dakota tribal councils, the tradition of consensus even when put against the formalism of Roberts Rules of Order tends to give way to all persons with an opinion on any given matter being discussed.

Too often, as Indian people, we prefer the romantic notion of swift, decisive action. It comes from our times of war with the encroaching enemy, be they other tribes or a growing country of European immigrants. We harken back to the idea that in order to be Indian, we must act aggressively and without doubt. True enough, given the mode of war but when it comes to nation-building, planning and economic development, seemingly endless meetings and discussions are better advised.

As Red Lake Nation along with other tribes across the country follow the lead of the U.S. Department of Justice's implied permission at the close of 2014 to pursue the cultivation and sale of hemp and marijuana, there are many questions that need to be asked and real answers given before motions to legalize should even be made.

Marijuana is not the silver bullet. The growth and sale of cannabis on Indian reservations are not the great sustainer we would like them to be. We know this because we have seen this model before with Indian gaming.

While many in Minnesota and across the country who did not grow up on the reservation like to point to financial windfalls and continued profitability of Indian gaming, those cases are the exception and not the rule. For many tribes, most of which are out of the way and in the most inaccessible regions of this country for basic emergency services a gift from the largess of the federal government, to be sure the profitability of gaming is low. The Native American Rights Fund reports that of the 560 tribal nations, only 224 operate gaming establishments. The National Indian Gaming Commission in its Gaming Revenue Reports from 2009 to 2013, show that the average of only 26 operations showed revenue in the $11 million. Split among the citizens of each tribal nations how they see fit to disperse it, either through per capita payments or investment in their infrastructures, it is still a long way to go for most tribes.

That model is most surely what will come to mind for most tribes that take the time to consider how best to take advantage of the cannabis free-for-all. For the average tribal citizen of the average tribal nation, that model has not worked to directly improve our lives. We do not live luxuriously, we do not cultivate expensive tastes or hobbies nor do we have the free time to ponder the philosophies of the world. For those of us who have been able to leverage what education and working experience we do have, our lives either dangle below or at the poverty line where the only luxuries we afford ourselves are reminders of why we work so hard to be poor: our families, our cultures and our nations.

But to fully dismiss the benefits of cannabis, whether for consumption or developing hemp products, would be an equally foolish characterization of the situation. As a raw material, hemp is cheaper and easier to use in the production of textiles, building material, paper and fuel. It's more sustainable than butchering entire forests and adding to our carbon footprint, as well.

In order to fully appreciate the benefits of such commercial ventures, tribes must face the reality of their national conditions by asking questions and having honest answers. As tribes, is there the entrepreneurial infrastructure to support the cultivation, development and distribution of marijuana or hemp products? Does the tribal government have a role in developing the business of cannabis or will it allow its citizenry to create business models and its own industry? Without venturing too far into any internal politics, how many tribes have financial, legislative and legal oversight and review to avoid even the potential charges of criminal intimidation or corruption? If not, do tribes have the legal and political will to create regulation and prosecute infractions of those regulations.

In addition, no tribal community is immune from the trends of the world around them. The tide is turning, nationally, for the legalization of cannabis. In states like Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado, marijuana is legal with more states joining the fray. In a phrase: the doors are opening. How long until dispensaries and hemp production become national realities? And at that point, how much business will have been lost by tribes from a flooded market?

The temptation is to see the immediate federal decriminalization of marijuana and hemp as a victory for sovereignty and a money-making opportunity that will fix our condition because we've adopted the notions that sovereignty is doled out by the federal government and money solves everything. When the money runs out, however, the next step is what should be of concern to tribal citizens.

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