When wealthy non-Native Seattleites began building summer homes on the Suquamish reservation in the 1960s, the Suquamish tribe didn’t have the resources to benefit from the vacation and tourism industry burgeoning on their Puget Sound shores. Federal agents had weakened the tribe’s land holdings in the early 1900s when they sold tracts of Suquamish land without the landowner’s consent, and then a bad deal in 1967 transferred 36 waterfront acres of land away from Suquamish control.
But by the time another industry thrust itself onto the Port Madison Reservation, the Suquamish were ready. After Washington’s adult-use cannabis program opened dispensaries for recreational sales on July 1, 2014, the Suquamish tribe decided to join the industry and open their first dispensary. Today, Agate Dreams is one of the top dispensaries in Kitsap County and is moving toward expansion.
Robin Little Wing Sigo, a Suquamish tribal member and a board member for the Suquamish Evergreen Corporation and Port Madison Enterprises, the agency that runs the tribe’s many commercial ventures, sees the dispensary as a way for the tribe to positively react to changes that might otherwise be imposed upon them.
“We’re in a place now where when a predominantly white culture comes in and imposes something on us, we can use this to our benefit and to the benefit our tribal members and non-Native neighbors,” Sigo says.
All of the tax revenue and a percentage of the profits that Agate Dreams earns goes to the tribal government, which Sigo says is used “to provide things like free college for every tribal member who wants to go, as well as better health care for our tribe and buying back reservation land.”
But despite the Suquamish tribe’s stronger economic position today, the path to success for Agate Dreams was still unusually bumpy.
The first barrier to developing Agate Dreams was public opinion — both inside and outside the tribe. Windy Anderson, a Port Madison Enterprises board member and Suquamish tribal member, says that stereotypes about Native American drug use inhibited many tribal members’ desire to enter the cannabis industry.
For example, Anderson was traveling for a conference at a nearby reservation when she stopped in a state dispensary on her way. She asked the budtender behind the counter why she thought there wasn’t a dispensary on the nearby reservation, and the budtender replied, “Those Indians have drug problems.”
“And I thought, ‘There it is,’” says Anderson. “This is why people are okay with us opening a liquor store, but not a dispensary.”
Still, in the face of the prejudices, tribal support for the cannabis industry grew throughout 2014. “Even five years ago, people in the tribe were saying they didn’t want marijuana legalized,” Sigo says. “But then elders and others in the tribe came forward to speak about cannabis’s medicinal properties, and opinions changed.”
After a general meeting and a tribal council vote, Suquamish leadership began sorting out the jurisdictional barriers to opening their dispensary. In October 2014, the Department of Justice confirmed that the Cole Memo applied to tribal land — after the Suquamish and other tribes reached out to them for clarification.
Then, in September 2015, the Suquamish tribe became the first tribe in the United States to sign a compact with a state. The agreement with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board set up a system where the Suquamish tribe now follows the same legal cannabis framework as Washington state and levies a tribal tax equivalent to the state excise tax on all cannabis sold to non-tribal residents.
“We dealt with a lot of skepticism from other tribes when we were the first to sign a compact, but we took that seriously and documented everything along the way,” says Sigo. “Now, those other tribes are asking us how it is owning a marijuana retail store, and we can tell them that we haven’t noticed an increase in crime or an increase in addiction.”
Calvin Medina, the manager of Agate Dreams and a Suquamish tribal member, has been working on building up the dispensary since before cannabis was legal on the reservation, before the tribe changed its drug-free hiring policy.
Medina says that it took months for Agate Dreams to become recognizable in the community.
“We didn’t want the dispensary to be a sore thumb sticking out, especially because of our neighbors who might not be pro-marijuana, so in the beginning we had a lot of folks coming by thinking that we sold jewelry, precious gems or rocks,” says Medina. But over time, the dispensary’s clean design and personable staff has made the store a community staple and their name recognition continues to grow as cannabis use becomes more normalized.
“It’s pretty crazy that any day of the week, a customer might be in here and see their neighbor’s kid, or their neighbor, or landlord or the guy who works at the grocery store,” says Medina.
At Agate Dreams, Medina says, “Flower is king.” The store aims to sell reliable cannabis at a reasonable price point, and has found its customers love strains like Gorilla Glue and Cherry Pie.
In the coming months and years, Agate Dreams is looking to build on its success by opening a processing plant and debuting products under its own brand, Tokém Cannabis.
And while other state cannabis entrepreneurs worry about the “reefer madness” dogma of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Agate Dreams has already been meticulously documenting every aspect of its business to protect the tribe from the federal government.
Sigo says she’s terrified about the potential of a federal crackdown on cannabis and stays on top of the daily news because she believes that the success of Agate Dreams is about more than the bottom line.
“For me and for the tribe, this isn’t about marijuana,” she says. “This is about us saying we’re our own government and we get to decide what’s best for our people.”
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