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Native Nations Assert Right to Cannabis Economy

New York Indian Reservation


Native Nations Assert Right to Cannabis Economy

Native American nations in New York state are eyeing the legal cannabis business, with some reservations already operating dispensaries. With state authorities yet to issue licensing regulations, the Shinnecock and Iroquois nations are asserting their rights under principles of indigenous sovereignty.

Nearly a year after the passage of Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), New York state authorities are only now starting the process of crafting a regulation structure for commercial cultivation, processing and sale. The first licenses are still months away.

Impatience is growing among aspiring entrepreneurs. As the 2022 session of the state Legislature opened late last month, the New York Growers & Processors Association released a six-point legislative agenda, calling for “provisional” licenses to be issued while the new Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) is still crafting regs. 

As the Syracuse Post-Standard reports, Sen. Michelle Hinchey (D-Hudson Valley) has filed a bill in Albany that would create such licenses, jump-starting the process. But some cannabis purveyors are not waiting. In New York City, a few are exploiting narrow loopholes in the law to operate storefront “cannabis clubs” that have, until now, tolerated as a kind of “gray market.” 

That free-for-all may soon be over. Albany’s News 10 reports that on Feb. 8, the OCM sent letters to several such establishments, ordering them to “cease and desist” from “illegally selling cannabis.” 

Yet there are those with a sounder claim to legality, although generally in some of the more remote corners of the state—New York’s Native American nations. And the OCM seems to be respecting their rights. 

Shinnecock Nation to Open Dispensary and Wellness Lounge in Hamptons 

Some 95 miles east of New York City, near the posh Hamptons community at the tip of Long Island, lies the Shinnecock Reservation—it’s existence invisible to many of its upscale neighbors. That, however, may soon be changing.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation in September voted overwhelmingly to approve two tribal measures that will establish cannabis sales on the reservation. All enrolled tribal members living on the reservation were eligible to vote.

The first vote, which passed 114-30, authorizes a legal framework for a new tribally chartered company, Little Beach Harvest, to move ahead with commercial sales. The second vote, passed 94-50, would authorize individual tribal members to similarly move forward with cannabis enterprises. An ordinance instating this framework must still be drawn up by the newly formed Shinnecock Cannabis Regulatory Division, and approved by the tribal Council of Trustees. 

“It means we are going forward in recreational sales both for business and a market for tribal members to engage in sales in an entrepreneurial fashion,” tribal chairman Bryan Polite told Long Island’s Newsday after the vote. 

Cannabis Now reached out to Chenae Bullock, managing director of Little Beach Harvest, which has entered a partnership with TILT Holdings of Phoenix for the cannabis project. 

The Little Beach Harvest two-story dispensary, with a drive-through and an adjacent “wellness lounge” will be just minutes from Southampton’s business district, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. According to Bullock, the all-encompassing facility will also handle cultivation and processing.

“As a business that is wholly owned by the Shinnecock, Little Beach Harvest will act as an economic engine for our community, not only creating jobs within its own operations but in creating business-to-business opportunities within our tribe as well,” she said. 

She foresees the dispensary becoming a “retail destination,” and a vehicle for consciousness raising among the greater public. 

“A lot of people have never even visited a Native American reservation before or have been exposed to Native American culture,” she said. “When people come to visit Little Beach Harvest, we have the opportunity to not only educate them on cannabis and its relation to Indigenous communities, but also on who we are as a people.” 

Bullock, who is a veteran of the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, adds: “We are stewards of the land and water, and what we can’t lose sight of is that cannabis is a sacred plant and medicine. As Native Americans we need to be a voice for the plant.”  

A Strong Example for Indigenous Communities

Native Americans and cannabis

The Shinnecock Nation has been building for this moment for years, passing a medical-use ordinance in 2016—two years after New York state passed a restrictive medical marijuana law. And in September 2021, the tribe voted in favor of adult-use cannabis.

Because the tribe is self-governing, they don’t need permission from the state to pass any of their own cannabis laws and regulatory framework. However, Bullock says, the Shinnecock’s “regulations very closely mirror those of New York state.”

“As a sovereign nation that governs ourselves, we gathered together and mapped out where we would want to be within cannabis,” Bullock relates. “We’ve gone through all of the steps of creating our own regulatory commission, the Shinnecock Regulatory Division, conducting community outreach, financial planning and so on, leading up to our partnership with TILT.” 

Little Beach Harvest is now submitting an application to the Shinnecock board for medical cannabis sales, and once the regulations for adult-use are in place, will also submit an application for that. “We’re not in a race with New York state on this; we are doing what is in the best interest of the tribe on our own timing,” Bullock says.

The New York branch of TILT subsidiary Standard Farms will help oversee indoor cultivation in a joint venture with Conor Green, a New York investment firm that specializes in cannabis operations on Native American lands. 

“We are proud to help create an entry into the cannabis industry that will be impactful for the Shinnecock Nation,” says Gary Santo, CEO of TILT Holdings. “To date, Indigenous people have been largely excluded from the social equity conversation across the country. This partnership—which is a true partnership in every sense—is a step forward in creating social equity for the Nation. We believe our expertise in cannabis operations along with Shinnecock’s thought-leadership and cultural connection to plant medicine will deliver economic growth for the region, while cementing the Nation as a leader in cannabis operations among Indigenous communities.”

The Shinnecock Nation gained federal recognition in 2010, after a generation of petitioning the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, and has claims pending for recovery of lands that were usurped over the centuries. In the meantime, cannabis sales could be a way for the Shinnecocks to win back some of the wealth represented by those lost lands from the surrounding affluent suburbia.

Recent plans for a casino at the Shinnecock reservation sparked a backlash from some of the tribe’s well-heeled neighbors. But, with stigma fast eroding even among the high bourgeoisie, the Shinnecock are hopeful that cannabis will go over better.

Cannabis Takes Root in Iroquois Country 

Some of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, whose traditional lands cover much of Upstate New York, are also preparing to enter the cannabis economy. These include the Mohawks, in New York’s North Country along the St. Lawrence River; the Cayugas, in the central Finger Lakes region; and the Senecas, in Western New York near Lake Erie. In contrast to the environs of Shinnecock, these are some of the more marginal and hardscrabble parts of the state.

As the Syracuse Post-Standard reports, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe already had “unauthorized” dispensaries operating on its Akwesasne Reservation when a tribal ordinance was passed last June legalizing adult-use and sales. To keep money within the community, everything from “seed to sale” must take place on tribal territory. Several Mohawk shops are now offering joints, tinctures and edibles.

The Cayugas recently announced the opening of their new Cayuga County dispensary in an Instagram post: “Arrowhead Cannabis 100% legal Marijuana Dispensary owned by the Cayuga Nation.” Cannabis is also now among the offerings at the tribally run Lakeside Trading shop in the village of Union Springs, and the Cayuga Corner Store near Seneca Falls. 

While these are on tribally-owned land, the Cayuga do not actually have a reservation, which complicates the jurisdictional question. The Union Springs village board voted in November to “opt out” of allowing retail cannabis sales, but agreed to a special exemption for the Lakeside Trading shop.

The Pipekeepers Tobacco & Gas, run by a dissident faction of the now unfortunately divided Caygua Nation government, also began offering cannabis products in Seneca Falls. But on New Year’s Day, the Cayuga Nation Police Department shut it down in a raid.   

Shops on territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians have been offering cannabis to customers as a “gift” when purchasing other merchandise—the same loophole used by some outlets in New York City. There are three such Seneca-run shops in the village of Kill Buck, just south of Ellicottville in Cattaraugus County. 

The remaining members of the Iroquois Confederacy are the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, the Oneida Indian Nation just to the east, and the Tuscarora Nation, along the Niagara River just outside Buffalo. Of these, the Oneidas are said to be studying a proposal for cannabis sales. 

An encouraging development is that the Iroquois nations, like the Shinnecock, have won federal recognition in recent years—and, with this condition, New York state is honoring their sovereign right to produce and vend cannabis. 

“Dispensaries are legal if they are on federally recognized, sovereign tribal land,” Office of Cannabis Management representative Freeman Klopott told the Post-Standard. He added that the OCM “has the ability to enter into agreements with tribes through tribal compacts to integrate them into the state program if all parties can agree to terms,” though no such agreements are yet in place.

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