Cannabis on the Rez: When Will It Be Legal?

Ruth Hopkins

Cannabis legalization is a hot topic. After decades of collective societal distain for the plant ala Reefer Madness, public opinion now seems to be swaying in favor of its use, especially where its medicinal properties are concerned. The medicinal benefits of marijuana are scientifically proven. It’s been shown to help those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, anorexia, Hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic pain, arthritis, and a host of other serious health conditions.

In 20 states and the District of Columbia, medical use of cannabis is permitted on some level. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized its recreational use- although two Tribes in Washington state have kept it illegal. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department has said it won’t challenge states' marijuana laws as long as they do not oppose federal enforcement.

Industrial hemp, another species of cannabis with relatively low THC levels, also remains illegal to grow in the United States despite the fact that it’s highly profitable. Products like paper, rope, plastics and textiles may all be derived from industrial hemp. It’s good for the environment too. One acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four acres of trees. Just think of all the trees, including those in the rainforest that could be saved if we started growing hemp as a crop. Hemp can also be cultivated without using toxic herbicides and pesticides. A number of states, including my home state of South Dakota, are discussing the possibility of legalizing industrial hemp because of the benefits it would bring the environment, as well as growers and the state’s economy.

Tribes are also weighing the pros and cons of cannabis legalization; like the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. While some view legalization as an incredible opportunity to exercise Tribal sovereignty and give their economy a much needed shot in the arm, others worry about substance abuse issues, crime, and the possibility that their homelands could become a drug haven.

During a recent trip to northern California, where medicinal use of marijuana is legal, I decided to investigate into how legalization has affected Native communities there.

I stayed at a reservation that was sandwiched between two other reservations. In California, reservations are called rancherias. The landscape was lush and green, full of ancient redwood trees perched on rolling hills. Some areas where marijuana is being cultivated are readily visible, and the smell of cannabis was apparent, even from the road.

I spoke with two Tribal members who are marijuana growers. They wished to remain anonymous.

The first individual had been growing marijuana for decades. As a result he was able to offer me a comparison of what it’s like to grow, use and sell marijuana before and after legalization.

As a user, he praised the use of medicinal cannabis. He said he was a recovering alcoholic and meth addict, and smoking marijuana kept him from relapsing. He also said that the process of growing marijuana himself was therapeutic. He took pride in the fact that the plants he grew were 100% organic.

As a dealer, he expressed concern about cannabis legalization. He said that seven years prior, a pound went for $35,000. Currently, it cost around $1,200. The market is flooded. For that reason, he explained, a lot of the pot grown in northern California leaves the state and is sold elsewhere. I questioned how so much could be illegally grown; he mentioned that his Tribe had no law enforcement. As a Tribe in a Public Law 280 state, they’re dependent on state police and that was apparently lax. Another negative of so much readily available cheap marijuana is that people use it as a form of currency, sometimes to purchase other drugs. Regardless, he said everyone was growing it - grandmas, grandpas, aunties, uncles - and they were good at it. A single plant could be 12-15 feet tall and yield 5-6 pounds all by itself.

The next grower I talked to was a staunch environmentalist who went by the book. He was pro legalization because he saw regulation as a way to weed out most negatives associated with the production and selling of cannabis. He was actively lobbying his Tribal council to legalize cannabis so the Tribe could have its own nursery. Besides providing the Tribe with new revenue, which he assured me would be greater than gaming profits, he sought to teach people how to grow cannabis in an environmentally friendly way. He expressed dismay as to how some people were not irrigating their plants properly, draining water sources during a drought, and illegally disposing of waste. He concluded that full legalization across the board was needed throughout the United States in order to insure that the process was regulated, and to stabilize the market. We also discussed how Tribes may be able to tax marijuana they sell, and how that promotes Tribal sovereignty. This grower also supported legalization of industrial hemp, although his Tribe didn’t have a large land base to support such an endeavor.

Whether you think cannabis legalization is dope or not, there’s no mistaking that legalization proponents are gaining ground. It’s time for Tribes to have a serious decussion about where they stand on the issue. If Tribes legalize cannabis before surrounding jurisdictions do, it’ll likely be challenged in federal court. Nonetheless, if done correctly, the benefits could outweigh the costs.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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toso mustaj's picture
As if alcohol and drugs weren't enough of a problem on reservations, we can see legalized marijuana as another step in keeping the people docile and controllable.
toso mustaj
toso mustaj's picture
As if alcohol and drugs weren't enough of a problem on reservations, we can see legalized marijuana as another step in keeping the people docile and controllable.
toso mustaj
Andrea Harvier's picture
I wonder how the tribes, not in 280 States, might go about legalization especially since they are federally regulated and legalization is ony on a state level? Has Ms. Hopkins done any research into that?
Andrea Harvier
Michael Madrid's picture
Only White man could think to make a plant illegal. That isn't much different than making a star, or a rock, or a tree illegal is it? The creator put things on earth for us to use and enjoy, but as is obvious in the case of tobacco, White man doesn't know the definition of the word: moderation. As for the apprehensions regarding marijuana becoming a problem on the Rez, it's part of the old "Reefer Madness" assertions that users become criminals and that it's a "gateway drug." This is all ridiculous, of course. The only law marijuana users routinely break is the law against possession of marijuana. It's time to quit incarcerating people for owing a plant!
Michael Madrid
Derek Stephen McPhail's picture
good article. you are talking to the converted with me. though it's been legal in Canada to cultivate industrial hemp, since March 12, 1998; due to the U.S. government's successful demonization of Cannabis Sativa, First Nations have been slow to jump on this important economic opportunity. recommend, that interested parties check out the informative books by Rowan Robinson: "The Great Book of Hemp" and "The Hemp Manifesto: 101 Ways Hemp Can Save Our World". there are a remarkable variety of useful products that can be made from industrial hemp. commonly overlooked facts are that the cultivation of hemp actually purifies the soil from heavy metals, eliminates the need for pesticides and recharges the soil with nitrogen. by using hemp in crop-rotation strategies, organic farmers can avoid the ultimately destructive consequences of using harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. definitely think that supporting the cultivation of hemp is a strategy compatible with tribal spiritual sensibilities.
Derek Stephen M...
Two Bears Growling's picture
The Creator made all kinds of medicine for our peoples. Some will abuse the gifts & some will only use them for healing or spirit quests. Personally, I have seen the proof of what can be with certain herbs, roots, plants & their blends. What would you think of a baby sent home to die of brain cancer & with using certain natural healing items this child is now tumor & cancer-free! Amazing what things our Creator made for us to heal our bodies with isn't it! What would you think about people with seizures no longer having them all because they are using certain natural things? Amazing isn't it! We should be respectful of the healing items the Creator gave us & those who are trained in the healing arts as well: Our medicine people know ancient cures for so many of the things that ails human beings as well as the animals we share this world with. We should be thankful for the bounty & knowledge the Creator shares with each of us. Don't scoff when you hear of the wonders our native medicine people can do. You would be surprised at just all these gifted ones can do & the knowledge they have been granted by the Creator. Our healers have thousands of years of knowledge that so-called modern doctors have no idea even of the existence of these cures. So many in the medical field laugh at our ancient ways of healing. Let them laugh all they like until they are struck down by some terrible disease, THEN they will seek anything & anyone who offers hope to them. Our healing ways don't just keep the symptoms away. Our healing ways cure things. I know a number of folks who have been healed of a number of problems to this very day. The good thing about natural & native healing ways is that you will seldom experience any of the side effects you see from all the big pharmacy poisons being sold at your nearest neighborhood pharmacy. Who wants all these man-made poisons in their body? Not I! Native healing all the way; every day!
Two Bears Growling