Indigenous tribes take the lead in the fight against legal weed


After the state legalized recreational marijuana in March, lawmakers and lawyers pushing for the law criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for dragging his feet in putting in place regulations on the law. sale and cultivation of marijuana. While most of the state has yet to wait a year or more before sales can begin, some Native American tribes are already moving forward with legal pot in their territories.

Marijuana law, when it comes to sovereign Native American tribes, can be tricky because there are no established regulations. “Short answer, it’s complicated,” said Heather Trela, member and director of operations at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. But the simplest way to understand it is that sovereign tribes are free to legalize – or ban – marijuana in their territory, including its cultivation and sale, regardless of the state. Still, it becomes much easier for tribes looking to enter the pot market to take action after surrounding states legalize the drug to avoid jurisdictional issues over drug-related crimes with the federal government.

At the forefront of these efforts in New York City is the Mohawk Tribe of St. Regis, whose territory lies at the northern edge of the state along the Canadian border. On June 28, he became the first tribe in the state to legalize recreational marijuana. But the tribe had been working on regulations since December 2019 following a tribal referendum on the issue. When the state approved its marijuana legislation, the Mohawk tribe of St. Regis was ready to act. And he’s on track to start sales well ahead of the state.

In a unique configuration, the Mohawk Tribe of St. Regis has established a comprehensive regulatory structure within their jurisdiction and will license tribal members and tribal businesses. This is different from the route taken by many other tribes, who have often set up tribal-owned and operated marijuana businesses. In an email, Brendan White, the tribe’s communications director, wrote: “The adoption of the Tribal Ordinance on Cannabis Use for Adults is historic, as it represents the first law on cannabis use for adults. Cannabis use by adults adopted by a tribe in New York State and is the first in the country to allow tribal members and businesses owned by tribal members.

The recently passed ordinance created the Tribal Cannabis Exchange to issue licenses and collect fees, and it includes a compliance office overseen by the Tribal Cannabis Board. She has already started receiving license applications, and although the tribe has not provided a specific timeline, marijuana sales are expected to begin in the territory before the end of the year. And the new ventures could have big monetary implications for the tribe. “This provides an opportunity to diversify our local economy, provide needed jobs and pay license fees to financially support the continued delivery of essential community programs and services,” White said.

“This provides an opportunity to diversify our local economy, provide needed jobs, and hand over license fees to (deliver) essential community programs and services.”

– Brendan White, communications director for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

“This provides an opportunity to diversify our local economy, provide needed jobs, and hand over license fees to (deliver) essential community programs and services.”

Not far behind is the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, which has rough terrain on a medical marijuana grow facility and build a dispensary and wellness center, with hopes that sales could begin before the end of the year. As with recreational marijuana, they plan to own and operate a medical marijuana business outside of state regulations within their jurisdiction. But now that the state has legalized recreational pot, tribal leaders have said they are seeks to establish regulations for that too, if the members agree on a framework. The Managing Director of Shinnecock Indian Nation Marijuana Company, Small Beach Harvest, declined to comment for this story, citing internal work going on right now.

Although sales can only take place on tribal lands, they can still impact neighboring communities. Local governments in the area have given up on opting out of recreational sales, as the pot would be in the area anyway if the Shinnecock Nation goes ahead with its own legalization. And given how slowly the state is putting in place its regulatory structure, the Mohawk Tribe of St. Regis and / or the Shinnecock Nation could sell recreational pot for months or more without competition from retail stores. regulated by the state.

Tribes, by setting their own tax rates, could also sell marijuana cheaper than state-regulated stores that may operate nearby. This is one of the incentives for states to enter into agreements with tribes, which typically result in similar tax structures and would allow tribes to operate outside their territory, according to Trela. These pacts, while not necessary, also help resolve jurisdictional issues at the state and federal levels. Many native casinos in New York City operate under such agreements with the state, and tribes in other states have often made a deal with heads of state when they engage in the pot trade. the largest dispensary in Nevada is the result of an agreement between the Paiute Tribe of Las Vegas and the state government, and it has been a major boon for the tribe.

The entry into the pacts is not always without controversy, however. In California, the tribes and the state government disagreed on the regulation of marijuana. In order for the tribes to enter the state market outside their territories, the California authorities demanded that they relinquish their tribal sovereignty and submit to state regulations on their own lands, which the tribes have done. refused to do. The problem arose because Proposition 64, which legalized recreational pot in the state, said nothing about how the state would interact with tribes.

New York’s law legalizing recreational marijuana did not say much about marijuana on native lands. He did, however, give the Cannabis Control Board, which will oversee the industry and its regulations, the power to “enter into tribal state agreements with the Indian nations and tribes of New York State … authorizing those nations or tribes Indian women to acquire, possess, manufacture, sell, deliver, transport, distribute or dispense cannabis for adult use and / or medical cannabis. But since the Cannabis Control Board is still not in place, it will likely be some time before such agreements are established. When asked if the Mohawk Tribe of St. Regis were interested in making a deal with the state, White said such a decision “should be presented to the members of the tribe for approval.”

But not all tribes jump into the action. The Onondaga Nation near Syracuse is would not intend to authorize pottery companies in its territory. And the Seneca Nation of West Indians of New York State has not publicly announced any plans, despite two years ago saying it was anxiously waiting for the state to legalize the pot. , “like a snake ready to strike.

In the meantime, the Mohawk Tribe of St. Regis and the Shinnecock Nation are moving forward to establish what could become a major industry, even while the state is still determining its own affairs. They will likely attract buyers from all over their area eager to purchase marijuana that is now legal to possess. The success of their businesses can serve as an example not only to other tribes who may be reluctant to enter the market, but also for the state.


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