The state of Nevada has legalized recreational marijuana and permits its Native American tribes to grow and sell cannabis as well. But, according to a representative of the Paiute Tribe, the Department of the Interior has come to them and warned that if they were to grow and sell marijuana, authorities would raid them and the message came right from Jeff Sessions. Why would the Department of Justice care specifically about Nevada Native American tribes getting involved with Nevada’s marijuana industry?
Trent Griffith manages Tsaa Nesunkwa, a headshop on the Ely Shoshone Reservation in Nevada, about 240 miles north of Las Vegas. “Tsaa Nesunkwa,” he says, means “to feel good.”
Open since 2016, the tribe is ready to convert its headshop into one of Nevada’s licensed cannabis dispensaries. The shop already received a tribe-issued dispensary license, approved under a compact with the state of Nevada to grow and sell medical marijuana. And although Griffith sees dollar signs, personal profit isn’t his primary motive.
“There’s really only one reason I got into this industry, and that’s basically for funding,” says Griffith. Tax revenue from weed sales, he says, could save his tribe’s language.
The Shoshone language, or Newe Taikwappeh, is “severely endangered” according to UNESCO. Out of the 8,000 Shoshone tribe members nationwide, only 2,000 speak it. Most of those speakers are not fluent, and most of them are over the age of 60. Without educational programs, the language could become extinct within a few generations. Tribal taxes on cannabis sales, Griffith says, could pay for full-time Shoshone language teachers and schools.
And he would know, because he’s also the tribe’s secretary treasurer.
Griffith, like many Native Americans, is eyeing America’s burgeoning cannabis industry to elevate his tribe both culturally and economically. In 2010 (the most recent data available), Nevada’s reservations saw a 14 percent unemployment rate compared to that year’s national average at 9 percent. Some reservations, such as the Walker River Paiute Reservation, have unemployment rates as high as 80 percent.
Typically, the only stable jobs on reservations are tribal government positions funded by grants from the U.S. federal government, and those positions are few and far between. “A lot of the grants are competitive,” Griffith adds. “It’s hard to get those funds.”
Legal cannabis could create hundreds, if not thousands, of new job opportunities on Nevada’s 32 tribal reservations and colonies. In the first month of legalization, Nevada’s industry sold $27 million worth of pot, about twice as much as Colorado or Oregon’s first months of sales. Currently, there are about 60 medical marijuana dispensaries and 37 recreational stores. These figures don’t include other cannabis-related services, although USA Today reports there are “92 cultivation facilities, 65 product manufacturing facilities, 9 testing labs, and 31 distributors.”
According to the Nevada Dispensary Association, the state’s industry should create over 3,000 full-time jobs by 2020. Colorado’s legal industry has already created over 18,000 new jobs, and a report by New Frontier estimates nationwide legalization would generate nearly 300,000 new positions. More jobs mean more profits mean more taxes. But more money can lead to more problems, too.
Currently, Nevada’s tribes do not operate any dispensaries or cannabis grows on their reservations. The tribes have issued their own dispensary licenses, but so far, none have opened their doors.
When SB 375 — Nevada’s tribal marijuana compact bill — became law this summer, it seemed like a dream come true. Headlines clamored that the reservations would become the “next frontier” for weed. Tribal traditions also prefer natural remedies like plant-based medicine over conventional pharmaceuticals. But medical marijuana on Nevada’s reservations may be a pipe dream. According to Laurie Thom, the council chair of Nevada’s Yerington Paiute Tribe, the feds are saying they’ll come after any reservation that grows or sells cannabis.
Several weeks ago, Thom, along with other tribal members and their supporters, met with a law enforcement official from the Department of Interior (DOI)’s Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding the Nevada tribes’ medical marijuana programs. Thom says the official told her he “would enforce federal law on Nevada tribes, because the US Attorney General would provide the necessary warrants.” In other words, if a tribe were to open a grow op or dispensary, a federal raid could be just around the corner.
“‘Don’t do it,’ he said,” recalls Thom.
Although marijuana is legal in the state of Nevada, it remains illegal at the federal level. Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice (DOJ), dislikes pot. Last year, he infamously quipped that, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and just this month, he told a press conference, “I’ve never felt that we should legalize marijuana.” Not even a year into his tenure, Sessions has already shut down several grey-market pot operations (for example, cannabis is legal to possess in Maine, but it’s not available for sale quite yet).
The DOJ under President Obama appeared to allow tribal cannabis operations via the Cole and Wilkinson Memos. The Cole Memo outlined rules state marijuana programs needed to follow to appease the federal government’s concerns (no selling to kids, no growing on federal property, etc). The Wilkinson Memo clarified the Cole Memo by extending the guidelines to Native American reservations. However, there’s a conflict between the memos: the Cole Memo says no pot operations on federal land, yet all reservations fall under federal jurisdiction. Additionally, the memos were just that — mere guidelines. The memos aren’t law. Sessions’ DOJ can ignore the memos or overturn them at any time.
Furthermore, Sessions’ authority comes from an 1831 federal court case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The ruling says the Native American tribes are “domestic dependent nations,” on par with the autonomy of state governments. The ruling also made the US government the final arbiter over tribal contracts and negotiations.
According to the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia ruling, the tribes’ “relations to the United States resemble that of a ward to his guardian. They look to our Government for protection, rely upon its kindness and its power, appeal to it for relief to their wants, and address the President as their Great Father.”