WASHINGTON – When the Yakama Nation announced in 2013 that it had no interest in selling pot, its chairman said the tribe had “a long and unpleasant history with marijuana, just as we have had with alcohol.”
But other tribes are raring to gain a foothold in the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry – and they say it would be a mistake for President Donald Trump’s administration to try to stop them.
After Washington became the first state to legalize recreational pot in 2012, its tribes are leading the way in the business: Four of them have signed compacts with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, including the Squaxin Island Tribe, which made history by opening Elevation, the first retail pot shop on tribal land. Another six are involved in negotiations.
California is poised to emerge as a major player, with many of its 109 federally recognized tribes eager to enter after state voters legalized recreational marijuana in November, said Jeff Doctor, executive director of the National Indian Cannabis Coalition.
But as the issue divides Indian Country, tribes seeking to cash in also face growing fear that their efforts may be for naught, with the Trump administration hinting that it will crack down on pot sales.
“We have to be worried,” Doctor said. “They could cut our health funding. They could cut our education funding, our policing. Everything we do is based out of D.C. at the end of the day, so you have to err on the side of caution when getting into this industry.”
But he added that tribes are resilient and no strangers to uncertainty: “Tribes always live in fear. We still need to go forward. For us to put our heads in the sand is not the way to go.”
Jim Peters, councilman with the Squaxin Island Tribe, called himself an early skeptic, concerned that marijuana might be a “gateway drug” leading to more drug use, but he said the tribe hadn’t seen any ill effects and was happy to be a pioneer.
“We weren’t trying to get the big headlines or anything like that, but it did feel good,” Peters said. “We’re not afraid to be the first ones … We haven’t really seen an uptick of people going into treatment, at least in our community.”
Like other tribal officials, he said he was trying to track developments in Washington very closely to see whether federal authorities would attempt to close the tribe’s store in Shelton, Wash.
“We have that same fear, but we’ve heard – before the election and then after the election – about getting big government out of the states’ business and stuff like that,” Peters said. “And so we do have the support of all the states that have legalized it.”
Tribes also have backing from two veteran Oregon Democrats on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who last month introduced bills to shield tribes from federal punishment.
“We’re going to put on a full-court press in helping them,” Blumenauer said.
In addition to the Squaxin Island Tribe, the Suquamish, Puyallup and, most recently, Muckleshoot tribes have signed agreements with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, said Brian Smith, a board spokesman. And he said the six others that were seeking agreements hoped to begin sales this spring: the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Jamestown S’Klallam, Samish, Spokane, Stillaguamish and Tulalip.
Greg Abrahamson, a member of the Spokane Tribal Council, said Thursday the tribe has not submitted anything official to the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
“That decision hasn’t been completely made yet,” Abrahamson said.
Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Liquor and Cannabis Board, said the agency sent the Spokane Tribe information about forming a compact but had not received an official response as of Thursday.
Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribes “really haven’t gotten a clear message” of what might transpire in Washington but his tribe had worked closely with the state to make sure its operations were safe.
“It’s created an economic engine – it’s had a positive impact, obviously,” Forsman said.
Marijuana sales in Washington state topped $1.1 billion in 2016, nearly doubling in a year. Tribal officials won’t disclose their sales, citing their status as sovereign nations.
“I appreciate the question, but no,” said Rion Ramirez, general counsel of Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe.
Ramirez, who negotiated the compact with the state, said it made sense for the tribe to follow the state’s lead in legalizing recreational marijuana.
“We had people coming onto our reservation at our casino and other places with marijuana, and we’d call the state cops to come deal with the non-Indians,” Ramirez said. “And they’d say: ‘What do you want us to do? It’s legal in Washington state.’”
He said the state had now created a national model for tribes and states to control marijuana “from seed to sale,” and he’s not expecting any crackdown.
“I ultimately believe that the Trump administration will focus on folks that are bad actors,” he said. “I think they’re going to run into problems if they try to shut us down.”
The Obama administration’s Justice Department gave tribes authority to grow and sell marijuana in 2014, saying reservations should be treated like states. In 2013, the administration said states could tax and sell the drug if they did a good job policing themselves.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to follow Obama’s lead. But his pick of former Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a longtime pot foe, as his attorney general set off alarms for legalization backers.
Sessions has set a deadline of July 27 for a Justice Department task force to review U.S. marijuana policies as part of a broader effort to cut crime. A year ago, he told a Senate hearing that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” And in February, he said in a speech that he was “dubious about marijuana.”
Vince Sliwoski, who teaches cannabis law and policy at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, said tribes were “breaking the letter of federal law” but that the situation was similar to when Washington state and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana five years ago.
“People thought those would get shut down right away. It’s just an issue of how much risk can the tribes stomach,” he said.
So far, Doctor said, only the Washington state tribes are selling pot, though others in Oregon, Nevada and California are considering the idea. A South Dakota tribe, the Flandreau Santee Sioux, planned to go first but abandoned its bid in 2015.
Sliwoski said he was optimistic that the Trump administration would not intervene, with polls showing strong support for legalization and so many states already voting to legalize: Twenty-nine states now permit pot to be used as medicine, while eight allow recreational use.
“With all of the other concerns . this shouldn’t be high on the list,” he said. “But Jeff Sessions has some retrograde views, so I hate to predict. I’m not in his mind. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen.”
Legalization opponents want the federal ban enforced and say tribes are making a mistake.
“Do we really think more tribal youth getting high is going to be helpful for them?” asked Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
The Yakama Nation in central Washington has been consistently opposed since its former chairman, Harry Smiskin, told pot users to “stay off our lands” in an opinion piece published on the digital news site seattlepi.com.
“While Europeans, their progeny and others may wish to use marijuana, the Yakama say to you: Go elsewhere,” he said.
Doctor said pro-marijuana tribes “have to respect” opponents but that marijuana and industrial hemp could evolve into big moneymakers for tribes.
“Look at gaming: There’s 566 federally recognized tribes in this country, but there’s only 184 tribes that have some form of gaming,” Doctor said. “Not every industry is for everybody.”
Without providing specifics, Peters said the Squaxin Island Tribe had exceeded early expectations from pot sales, making enough to pay for its new store building in nine months, far less time than the projected two years.
He worries that Washington state is not in “the best-favored eyes” of the Trump administration. But he said tribal officials “have got to do our job” in making the case that marijuana was no worse than alcohol and had helped people who relied on it for medicine while hurting sellers in the black market.
“It is so convenient now that people don’t have to call their dealer,” Peters said. “They can just come in.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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