ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION — As New York prepares to launch a retail marijuana market, sales of buds and edibles are already booming on some Native American lands around the state.
Shops dot the main road on the American side of Mohawk Territory straddling the Canadian border. In the Finger Lakes, the Cayuga Nation sells marijuana at two stores. Native Americans opened more stores in western New York in Seneca territory.
Many of these stores are small and far from major cities, and there is an internal dispute over the legality of about a dozen operations on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. But the sales show how Native Americans were able to tap into what is expected to be a multi-billion dollar statewide market early on. Native Americans call it an expression of their sovereignty and a way to bring much-needed economic activity to their territory.
“I think it’s a release valve for our visitors, our friends, our families,” said William Roger Jock, a partner at the Good Leaf dispensary on the land the Mohawks call Akwesasne. “We’ve been trampled on for so long and for something like this to happen, it’s almost liberating.”
Jock stood by the counter of Good Leaf on a recent afternoon as customers looked at glass jars of Master Kush and Bubblehead. He called the products “100% native.”
New York legalized recreational marijuana for adults a year ago, though statewide retail sales appear to be months away. State officials say the first sales could begin by the end of the year under a program providing the first licenses to people affected by marijuana-related convictions. Regulations for the entire adult-use market are expected this summer.
In contrast, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, which governs the U.S. side of Akwesasne, passed an adult marijuana use ordinance last June that allows business licenses to be issued to tribal members. The council said in a prepared statement that “there is a short window of time for tribal licensed cannabis businesses to open before other areas of New York State.”
But stores began opening last year without permission from the tribal government. Jock and others say their operations are endorsed by the longhouse, a traditional community, political and spiritual institution.
The reservation’s main road now has nearby marijuana stores selling cheap cigarettes and gasoline. The new businesses are attracting customers like Nick Brooks, who recently bought some candy while returning from a trip to Home Depot.
“It’s been on my mind for two months, ‘Where can I get gummies?’ And I didn’t know where to go, but we just passed by. he said.
Last year, the tribal government tried unsuccessfully in court to shut down seven clinics they said had been opened illegally. This month they issued cease and desist orders against six more operations, although at least some of the stores still appear to be open this week.
Dispensaries on the Canadian side of Mohawk Territory are regulated separately.
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, although New York and 17 other states have legalized recreational marijuana. The Mohawks, like tribes in Michigan and other states, established their own regulations. New York officials say dispensaries are legal if they are on federally recognized sovereign tribal land.
“It’s legal the same way it’s legal in the states,” said Heather Trela, a marijuana policy expert at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany. “It’s still federally, obviously, illegal and they have to make sure they don’t lash out with federal regulators.”
It’s unclear how many Native American cannabis operations have opened statewide or how they source product. The overwhelming majority of operators declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.
But it is clear that others are on the way.
A sparkling news “hypermarket” called Budders is set to open along the main strip of the Mohawk reservation in mid-April – with a tribal license. CEO Ryan White seemed unimpressed with the existing competition, saying the store’s size and selection of regulated, locally grown produce will help give them a long-term advantage.
“We know there is a big market for cannabis,” said White. “We’re seeing people coming up to 50 miles away. They’re coming for gasoline and tobacco products, and we’re going to target them as well.”
The Cayuga Nation, which already sells marijuana in two of its Finger Lakes stores, plans to open a grow facility before the end of the year. The Cannabis Trade “is the next step in expanding and diversifying economic opportunities for the Cayuga Nation,” they said in a prepared statement.
And near the eastern tip of Long Island, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is working with two outside companies on a cultivation facility and a dispensary. Phoenix-based TILT Holdings will provide management services and up to $18 million for operations along the main road to the Hamptons, about 70 miles east of New York.
Already approved for the sale of medical marijuana, the tribe’s cannabis business, Little Beach Harvest, will seek a recreational sales license from tribal regulators.
Chenae Bullock, nation member and chief executive of Little Beach Harvest, said the operation will provide much-needed income and jobs for people in the territory, many of whom live in poverty in an area synonymous with wealth.
“The ultimate goal is to support people who have been oppressed for 400 years,” she says.