Will Native Americans Take Over the Cannabis Industry? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Will Native Americans Take Over the Cannabis Industry?

Will Native Americans Take Over the Cannabis Industry?

By Nick Fouriezos


Because the budding industry could revitalize native communities.

By Nick Fouriezos

Entering the Las Vegas Paiute reservation, you soon pass the Smoke Shop, a cigar and tobacco retail store that reportedly brings in nearly nine-tenths of the tribe’s (paltry) revenue. From the shabby homes here, you can see the gaudy signs of the palatial casinos that line the Vegas Strip just six miles south. Turn the other way and there’s the cemetery, where tribal leaders say the graves outnumber the current population of less than five dozen members. Finally, you arrive at your destination: the community center, where a job fair that started just 10 minutes ago has already attracted nearly a hundred people — and seats are quickly running out. 

They are here to get hired as cashiers and greeters, inventory clerks and “budtenders” at the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, a colossal recreational marijuana store set to open within sight of Sin City. Would-be weedslingers are being screened, interviewed, asked to provide résumés and to talk about their relevant background experience. The tribe is looking for those who have worked in retail, not just expert tokers: “A lot of the deep weed guys are not great employees, so you want a mix,” says Steven Olson, a contract litigator with Oregon-based Tonkon Torp LLP who is helping the tribe navigate the legal morass of modern marijuana.

For the Paiutes, it’s uncertain, and possibly treacherous, terrain in a state that only recently legalized pot. But with the promise of potentially $100 million in additional annual revenue, the 15,800-square-foot facility they’re calling the largest recreational space in the country also represents the best chance for the Paiutes to survive in their 31-acre nation after years of dwindling population and revenue. 

A lot of American tribes you don’t hear about anymore because they all died out. This is helping conserve them.

Miranda Brode, job applicant, NuWu Cannabis Marketplace

Nationwide, tribes are making the same mental calculus. Can they invest in pot and tap into an industry that could provide wealth the way casinos did for prior generations? Or will jumping into a field that is far from settled legally doom them, especially under a presidency and a U.S. Justice Department that have not been fans of the budding industry? “Some tribes missed out on the casino and gambling era,” says Cassandra Dittus with Tribal Cannabis Consulting, which is working with a host of Nevada tribes. “It’s an opportunity they see along the same lines: They don’t want to be the last to the boat.”

When Nevada legalized weed by a voter referendum in November, the Paiutes and other tribes decided to give pot a shot. In June, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 375, which allows the governor’s office to deal directly with Native American leaders on the legal use and sale of marijuana on tribal lands, bypassing a federal law that limits such negotiations. Each of the state’s 27 federally recognized tribes is eligible under the law, and three tribes (the Las Vegas and Yerington Paiutes, as well as the Ely Shoshone) have entered into compacts with Nevada. The model is similar to ones used in Washington state, where four tribes, including the Squaxin Island and the Suquamish, have state compacts to enter the Mary Jane marketplace — with six more tribes waiting in line this spring. Meanwhile, the small Iipay Nation in San Diego County in Southern California opted to embrace marijuana in May … soon after shuttering its gambling hall, which had accrued $50 million in debt. 


Native American groups have distinct advantages when it comes to producing pot, including access to local lands and waters, as well as cultural ties to cannabis, says Dittus. Tribes often have an established distribution network, with many already investing in casinos and smoke shops nationwide. And because they don’t have to pay taxes, they can also levy their own marijuana tax, which would be lucrative: The Suquamish tribe, for instance, imposed a 37 percent marijuana tax — the same as Washington state levied on non-tribal weed — plus another 8.2 percent tax, according to Seattle’s alt weekly The Stranger. Those revenues go straight into tribal coffers. As a whole, Washington lawmakers expect marijuana taxes to raise $730 million from 2017 to 2019. After portions of that go to public health programs and regulatory agencies, $211 million will enter the general fund — roughly half of 1 percent of the state’s $4.3 billion operating budget. When lobbying for the Senate bill, the Nevada Tribal Cannabis Alliance reported that it expected $7.5 billion in “economic activity” in the first seven years of the compact. 

And yet, tribal communities are also nervous. In October 2014, the U.S. Justice Department, led at the time by Obama pick Loretta Lynch, published the Cole Memorandum, which suggested that although tribes are under federal purview, they would not be prosecuted for growing or selling pot in states that had legalized it. However, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has more broadly suggested a stricter approach to marijuana. After Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper met with Sessions to talk about marijuana laws, Hickenlooper told OZY: “What I tell everybody is: ‘He is seriously against you. He just doesn’t have the money to fight you right now.’ Which, if you’re in the business, you should think pretty hard about how much you want to expand or be out front on it.” That may especially be true for Native Americans, who have faced obstacles in other states: In one case, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota set their plants on fire after the state attorney general suggested they could be raided by the feds. 

However, allowing tribes to cultivate the cash crop of the new millennium could help more than native peoples. At the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, Jeff Ward says he has been searching for other jobs, but the budtender position stuck out more than most: “It’s working with customers,” the 27-year-old Las Vegas resident says, “and it’s something that a lot of people really love.” His partner, 22-year-old Miranda Brode, hopes to be a greeter. She appreciates that the revenue would go straight to the tribes: “A lot of American tribes you don’t hear about anymore because they all died out. This is helping conserve them,” Brode says. “It means we can have tribes in the future, and I can show my kids that we are part of this heritage.” 

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