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Cannabis Is New Industry for Native Tribes, but Opportunity Is Not Equal

Cannabis Industry not Equal for Native Tribes
Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


Cannabis Is New Industry for Native Tribes, but Opportunity Is Not Equal

State law means Paiutes have Las Vegas’s only cannabis lounge. But across the border in California, state law has kept California tribes from accessing the legal cannabis industry.

Successful in business, the Las Vegas Paiutes are sometimes called “city Indians.” A tease, as the tribe’s ex-chairman, Benny Tso, recently explained to the Guardian, borne out of at least some jealousy.

The Paiutes are one of the more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States and one of about a few dozen involved in the cannabis industry. Like other tribes in other states, the Paiutes in the past have turned to tobacco or gambling for income.

But in 2019, the Vegas Paiutes have something nobody else in Las Vegas, tribal or otherwise, can match: For the next 18 months at least, they have Sin City’s only legal cannabis lounge.

In 2017, the tribe opened up the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, about a mile away from the Fremont Street Experience in revitalized downtown Las Vegas. NuWu, “the people” in the Southern Paiute language, boasts a drive-through window, unique among Vegas’s very many and very large weed stores. And, because they have tribal sovereignty, they’re also exempt from a law prohibiting cannabis use in public.

With that unique opportunity supplementing the tribe’s proven business acumen, legal weed have may have “prolonged our tribe by three to four more generations,” Tso told the Guardian.

The problem is the Paiutes’s story is newsworthy and it is newsworthy because it is rare.

One of cannabis legalization’s most hoary selling points is economic. Legal weed, or at least the capture by the legal market of demand for the world’s most popular illicit drug, means jobs and tax revenue. At least that was the promise.

But similar to the communities of black, brown and other working-class people of color who suffered the most under prohibition, other tribes in other states have been left out of their share in any cannabis bonanza.

Under federal law, reservations are supposed to be “sovereign nations,” meaning tribes are free (with some exceptions) to pass and enforce their own laws. Like the Paiutes, tribes are allowed to open casinos or sell cheap tobacco under “compacts” with the states within which their “states” exist.

But as KQED pointed out last summer, California has yet to make any law that would allow its more than 100 tribes, 35 of whom have expressed some interest in entering the cannabis business, to comply with strict state cannabis regulations.

Thus, while tribes are able to cultivate and sell cannabis on reservations, they aren’t allowed to participate in the statewide legal market — and not every interpretation of convoluted reservation law even allows them to conduct business on the reservation.

In the past, former Gov. Jerry Brown demanded that Indian tribes interested in cannabis waive their “sovereignty” before being allowed in, meaning that state environmental laws, building codes, and other onerous regulations would have to apply. The tribes refused.

Other disincentives have come in the form of actions from law enforcement. Prior to Proposition 64’s passage in Nov. 2016, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, in Mendocino County, attempted to enter the cannabis game by growing on its reservation. Those efforts were squelched when Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman raided the grow, declaring it illegal, and eradicated 400 plants.

The California Native American Cannabis Association, a would-be trade group representing the 35 California tribes with cannabis interests, has mailed repeated letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom, requesting either outreach or at least acknowledgment that the state is freezing out its Native people.

But “[i]n spite of repeated overtures, state cannabis regulatory agencies have refused to interact with tribal cannabis regulatory agencies for the benefit and consumer protection of California’s cannabis consumers,” the CNACA wrote in a memo submitted to the state Bureau of Cannabis Control last summer.

Without cannabis, some tribal leaders say, native tribes, with their support from the federal government reduced and income from gaming similarly diminishing, don’t have a chance on a modern economy.

“You have a lot more third-world situations right here in California than you know, and it is in tribes,” said Richard Almaraz, a member of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, a 130-person tribe in Riverside County. Almaraz’s tribe does not have casinos.

At least one tribe has defied state regulators and opened a dispensary. The Mountain Source Dispensary, on the lands of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel in northeastern San Diego County, has operated a dispensary on tribal lands since early 2019.

Located in the building that used to house a failed casino, the dispensary attracts about 60 customers a day despite a remote location, the Washington Post reported, but if it could produce cannabis for the entire California marketplace, it might mean dozens of tribe-sustaining jobs, not just curious customers. Until such allowances are made, they won’t. Meaning cannabis, rather than an economic boon, is another reminder of the ills heaped upon the U.S.’s indigenous people.

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