The cannabis boom has not reached much of Indian country. Tribe blames government discrimination


On the day of its inauguration at the beginning of July, Cannabis Wō Povi in Pueblo de Pojoaque, NM, opened its doors to nearly 500 customers and visitors throughout the day.

New Mexico legalized the sale of recreational cannabis this spring, and Wō Poví, which means “medicinal flower” in the Tewa language, is the rare tribal cannabis business in the state, home to nearly two dozen pueblos and tribal nations.

Guests have commented on how “a step up for the pueblo” and “historic” it is. A clerk called the opening of the store “a big step towards our sovereignty”.

But even as recreational cannabis businesses thrive in New Mexico – sales exceeded $39 million in September – Wō Poví operates in a legal gray area. Federal deference to states that have legalized medical and recreational cannabis doesn’t always occur on tribal lands, and a lack of federal guidance on the subject means tribal dispensaries and grow ops can’t operate with the same. certainty that the industry benefits elsewhere.

“Today, right now, we are being discriminated against,” said Gov. Craig Quanchello of the Pueblo of Picuris, a pueblo whose attempt to enter the industry five years ago was foiled by those ambiguities. legal, even though cannabis is legal under the Picuris Act.

Emma Gibson, Mountain West Press Office

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Cannabis flower at Wō Poví Cannabis, Pubelo de Pojoaque, NM

“And also now that the state is a recreational state — I mean, we’re still considered New Mexicans — but being a New Mexican living in Picuris, you’re not allowed to engage in that.”

New Mexico passed the first medical marijuana law in the nation. That was in 1978. That marked the beginning of states deviating from federal cannabis laws, and as decades of legal tension and uncertainty have eased in recent years in states that have legalized cannabis , uncertainties persist in Indian country. That’s especially true in the Mountain West, where about 80 tribes are essentially left out of an industry that’s expected to top $57 billion in sales by 2030, according to New border data.

The industry’s uneven growth has largely been dictated by shifting federal policies in response to pressure from the states. One of the big changes came in 2013 when, under the Obama administration, a Justice Department note said he would prioritize enforcement of the federal cannabis ban in states that have legalized and regulated it. In 2014, another note, known as Wilkinson memo, essentially extended this focus to tribal lands. In 2018, the Trump administration overturned these policies by announcing “a return to the rule of law”.

It was after the Wilkinson Memo that Pueblo de Picuris ventured into medical cannabis. Yet in 2017, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs raided Picuris and uprooted the tribe’s approximately 30 plants. The feds didn’t prosecute but Picuris lost his investment.

And last year, Richard Hughes, one of Picuris’ attorneys, said the BIA raided a Picuris tribesman who had nine cannabis plants and a New Mexico medical cannabis card.

Hughes says the tribe wrote to the BIA officer in charge of the regional law enforcement office and asked if they could find a solution.

“His response was, ‘Our officers are not trained to ignore violations of federal law in Indian Country,’ which is quite laughable, frankly, because time and time again the serious crimes that happen in Indian Country are just ignored by these officers,” he said.

    A resident of Picuris Pueblo walks into the tribe's medical cannabis growhouse.  Federal agents raided the greenhouse in 2017.

Shaun Griswold

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Source NM

A resident of Picuris Pueblo walks into the tribe’s medical cannabis growhouse. Federal agents raided the greenhouse in 2017.

“They obviously have a special place in their hearts and souls for cannabis violations,” he added.

BIA did not respond to an interview request for this story, and New Mexico’s U.S. attorney had no comment.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, another tribe had a totally different experience navigating state and federal cannabis laws.

The Las Vegas cannabis company Paiute Tribe is called NuWuName – “the people” in South Paiute.

Their two dispensaries near Las Vegas see up to 4,000 clients a day with, would have$6 million in sales per month.

President Deryn Pete says the tribe has excellent working relationships with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

“I feel like the sovereignty of the tribe has been strengthened in the process,” she said. “That is to say, the tribe has proven itself time and time again and that is in its ability to govern itself and act as a responsible governmental neighbor to other rulers.”

She says the tribe is planning a big growth operation — and isn’t worried about federal authorities pushing back. A Nevada law passed in 2017 allows tribes to open their own cannabis stores.

New Mexico is also trying to extend state-level protections to some of its pueblos.

Although federal laws still apply on tribal lands, in May the Governor announced the signing of two intergovernmental agreements with the pueblos of Pojoaque and Picuris to facilitate their entry into the recreational cannabis industry.

This could be an economic boon for Picuris, which is a non-gaming tribe.

Governor Quanchello hopes the deal will keep the BIA out of Picuris pueblo’s cannabis business, similar to the federal government’s hands-off approach with the Paiute tribe of Las Vegas.

“I think the most significant thing about the IGA from our perspective is just that New Mexico recognizes our sovereignty and allows us to exercise our sovereignty,” he said.

As Wō Poví Cannabis in Pueblo of Pojoaque and NuWu continues to grow, lawmakers around the country are pushing the federal government to protect cannabis operations in Indian Country. Just last week, two Republican members of Congress wrote to President Joe Biden urging him to use administrative action to again deprioritize enforcement of federal cannabis laws in tribal lands.

They referred to the raid of the tribesman Picuris.

“The enforcement of federal cannabis laws on tribal lands, especially in cases where the tribe and the state have legalized cannabis use, is wrong and must end. Not only is it unfair, it is discriminatory,” they wrote in the letter. “These misguided enforcement actions have chilled Indian Country – tribes are unsure whether the federal government will continue to enforce and prioritize federal cannabis laws only on reservations.”

Lawmakers wrote the letter days after President Biden issued an executive order forgive thousands of people with federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana. It also asks federal agencies to review the classification of marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Too many lives have been disrupted because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time we righted those wrongs,” Biden said.

Editor’s note: Kaleb Roedel, a KUNR-based Mountain West News Bureau reporter, contributed to this story.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana , KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

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