The Business of Cannabis: Cannabis on Tribal & Trust Land Pt. 1

Historically marijuana cultivation on tribal land was seldom. Cannabis Indica grew wildly and there was no need for them to grow mass amounts when, depending on where they were, they could gather and collect what they needed. Natives in early (written) documented years used marijuana for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. When smoking cannabis, which not all tribes did, they viewed this as way to connect with their Creator. Just like any ceremony conducted, Natives would use specific pipes to inhale the smoke. These pipes were seen as living beings and spirits, making the act a very personal ritual.

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The late 1800s roll around and the USA now makes each tribe become federated and divi up the land they once roamed according to weather and food cycles. Now Sovereign Nations, each tribe has their own form of government called Council. One act of the Council is to bring forth a new law and oversee the passing of any law pertaining to their trusted land. To begin selling or cultivating cannabis, each tribal member must vote a majority to legalize the act. Even today, cannabis is legal in the state of Washington, but unless the tribe you have entered has legalized the substance, and very few have, you would then face a federal offense.

The Nisqually Indian Tribe, a tribe located in the state of Washington near Olympia, is where I met with a tribal member, Monty Sison, and the heads of their economic department, Cynthia Iyall and Bob Iyall (sister and brother), to discuss their plan in the coming years and/or if they even had one. Some tribal members have begun to make those first crucial steps in legalizing the plant by sending out a survey to each of the 900+ members. After analyzing the responses, about 80% of the tribe has said they are in favor of legalizing and getting involved in the cannabis industry, while the other 20% says no. Can you guess who the 20% are?

Elders traditionally have a lot of say in the tribal community. They are held to the highest regard, and their thoughts and opinions on matters are taken very seriously when deciding the future of their youth. Many of the elders today are from a time when the US government was putting the most money into propaganda, highlighting the (speculative) negative effects the plant holds in society. Many of these elders have also lost many friends and family members to substance abuse stemming from generational trauma, causing them to perceive the legalization of cannabis as a clear way of promoting a drug to Native youth.

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Cynthia and Bob both stated that they will put the time and effort into planning as soon as the tribe votes and passes the legislation. Until then, they both have other economic opportunities to focus on. Both shared a concern over recent letters from Jeff Sessions to the heads of the state, claiming they are in route for a crackdown from the DEA.

Let’s rewind to August 23, 2013: Obama is in office, Michelle is our First Lady, and we've come to one of the most crucial moments in modern cannabis history. The Cole Memo is released. The Cole memo consists of eight guidelines for states to follow to assure that the federal government would not officially step in and interfere with the states' endeavors in regulating the schedule 1 substance. Put forth by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, the Cole Memorandum’s highlights are as follows:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;

• Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;

• Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law to other states;

• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity; from being used as a cover pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;

• Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;

• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of the other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;

• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environment dangers posed by the marijuana production on public lands; and

• Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.


The Cole memo now gave free range, in some sense, to regulate the production and sale of cannabis. However, the memorandum was missing one very important element. Cole stated that this memorandum was allowing “state and local government” to regulate the production and sale of cannabis, leaving sovereign nations in question. Because trusted tribal land is the associated tribe's land to govern, a few tribes got the green thumb to join in what is now referred to as the “Green Rush.”

One Nation that is visible in the press for jumping in the game a little too quickly, and still has a court case pending against them, is the Flandreau Sioux Tribe in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And yes, this is a federation of the same tribe that fought for their water rights at Standing Rock this past year. The Sioux tribe had high hopes (no pun intended) to have the first ever Cannabis adult resort. There, you would be able to stay at the five-star hotel, smoke amazing ganja, and all the while be immersed in the divinity of the first nations culture.

The tribe immediately held a Council meeting after the release of The Cole Memo, voted to legalize, and began breaking ground for a massive grow operation. Yes, the tribe did the right thing by legalizing cannabis on tribal land but what they failed to work with was that fact that cannabis was/is still illegal in South Dakota, making it still illegal for anyone, Native or non-Native, to buy any type of cannabis products and leave reservation or trusted land, or participate in resort or lounge activities and drive home intoxicated afterwards. Should anyone be stopped by police after doing so, they would face charges with the state of South Dakota, which would also be fronting the bill (via tax dollars) for jail/court.

Even though cannabis was legalized on trusted Sioux tribal land, the fact that their main consumer was traveling from an area of the state where cannabis was not legalized, posed a threat to the state of South Dakota. The federal government then proceeded to reprimand the Sioux tribe, stating that they had no business or right to legalizing cannabis before the state. Their Council ultimately decided to stay on good terms with the government by shutting down any future of the resort and burned their crop to the ground. But where did they go wrong? Cannabis was legalized on tribal land! They are their own sovereign nation and govern themselves (clearly only to a certain extent). What happened?! As mentioned above, the Cole Memorandum included all state and local government, leaving an unclear explanation as to where tribes fit into the picture...

...To be continued !  

~ Stoney Spice ~