More Tribal governments considering cannabis operations

‘We’d much prefer selling clams and selling fish, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt’

POULSBO — Port Gamble S’Klallam Chair-man Jeromy Sullivan once used a cannabis-based salve on an injured wrist and the pain subsided.

But he doesn’t smoke pot. And if his Tribe becomes one of the latest Tribes to authorize cannabis retail sales on their lands, he doesn’t anticipate smoking it “and I’m not going to promote it to my family,” he said.

Likewise north on Fidalgo Island, where members of the Samish Indian Nation have mixed feelings about authorizing the sale of what many elders consider a “gateway drug.”

Samish Chairman Tom Wooten’s opinions about cannabis are shaped by his own experiences. “I know a lot of people use it for pain relief,” he said. “My father used it to help him with chemotherapy, and I know people who give cannabis biscuits to their dogs that have arthritis. There is some medical benefit to this drug.”

With recreational cannabis sales taking place in neighboring communities, and with Tribes having regulatory authority on their own lands — “It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore,” Wooten said — more Tribes are considering getting into the cannabis business. But they are also grappling with how doing so conflicts with cultural mores.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” said Sullivan, whose Tribe is one of six considering signing agreements with the State of Washington for cannabis operations on the Tribes’ lands.

Sullivan said his Tribe hosted several town hall meetings to get input from Tribal members. There was a lot of support for the medicinal use of cannabis, and about 50 percent of Tribal members said the Tribe should “at least find out what [cannabis is] about,” Sullivan said.

(Not all Tribes with state compacts sell cannabis. The Puyallup Tribe operates a testing lab and is considering growing cannabis for medicinal purposes. The Puyallup Tribe also owns the Salish Cancer Center, formerly the Seattle Cancer Treatment &Wellness Center.)

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Council hosted a public hearing on April 10 and is expected to vote in May on whether to begin making code and policy changes that allow a cannabis operation. But, Sullivan warns, if the Tribe proceeds, ordinances and laws will be written to “protect those who don’t want it around them and keep it away from children.”

Tribal governments are sovereign, which means they have inherent authority over their lands and members, or citizens. As such, they don’t have to compact with the State of Washington, but in doing so they adopt rules already developed by the state, with U.S. Justice Department guidance, for keeping the industry clean.

Under the compact between the state, the Suquamish Tribe and Squaxin Island Tribe — the first Tribes in the state to open cannabis retail stores — the state doesn’t impose an excise tax on their lands. However, Suquamish and Squaxin charge a tax equivalent to the state excise tax on purchases by non-Indians, of whom the state has jurisdiction. Suquamish and Squaxin tax purchases by Native American customers, of whom they have jurisdiction, and those revenues are used for Tribal government services.

The competitive edge: Like any government, Suquamish and Squaxin set their own tax rates, and those rates can be lower than those set by neighboring governments.

The advantages

There are some advantages to Tribes licensing cannabis operations on their lands. One, cannabis sales are taking place in neighboring communities anyway. Two — and this is obvious — cannabis is big business.

Russell Steele, CEO of Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe, said he’s not at liberty to share revenue figures for the Suquamish-owned Agate Dreams cannabis shop on Highway 305. But he said business there has exceeded expectations. Revenue generated by Agate Dreams is being used to buy back land lost during the allotment era. More than half of the land on the Port Madison Indian Reservation is now owned by the Suquamish Tribe.

All told, there are 166 licensed producers, 158 processors, 982 producer/processors, and 495 retailers in Washington, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board website. Those businesses produce average daily sales of $4.8 million and, in the fiscal year — July 1 to June 30 — generated $64.9 million in tax revenue in 2015, $185.7 million in 2016, and $233.7 million to date in 2017. Cannabis flowers comprise 70-75 percent of sales, according to a board spokesman.

And three, Tribes that legalize cannabis can set the ground rules on how it’s processed and sold on their lands, heading off environmental problems associated with clandestine marijuana cultivation.

“Everyone who has wanted marijuana has had marijuana,” Suquamish Police Chief Mike Lasnier said in an earlier interview. “It’s more accessible now, except the Mexican mafia is no longer making the money and there is no more horrific dumping of trash and pollution. I was ecstatic when [the ban] was removed, because now there’s one set of rules for everyone.”

The conflict

But how does legalized cannabis jibe with a culture that teaches its young people the importance of alcohol-free, drug-free, tobacco-free living?

It’s a question Sullivan asks, lamenting over the new economy. For centuries leading up to treaty times, the time of the grandparents’ grandparents, the S’Klallam economy was driven by the sea and trade.

“Look at what we’re profiting from” now, Sullivan said. “Gambling, gas — which causes pollution — alcohol, tobacco. We’d much prefer selling clams and selling fish, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt … Every program we have is helped or fully funded by these revenues.”

No matter how Indian Country leaders feel about cannabis, they can’t ignore it. “The state legalized this. It was brought to our doorstep by a neighboring government,” Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said in an earlier interview. “The fact is, it’s here.”

Also in an earlier interview, Peg Deam, a culture bearer who works for the Suquamish Tribe Department of Community Development, said cannabis legalization provides a teaching opportunity.

“For our children, it’s another lesson in ‘You make your choices. How do you want to live?,’ then show them the consequences,” she said. “They have free will, they’re going to make their own choices. Right now, [marijuana] is hush-hush and under cover. When we bring it out … it becomes another stark reality for our kids to see and we can educate them on what they do not want in their lives.”

Still, some Native Nations continue to take a hard line against cannabis. The Yakama Nation, population 10,000, has banned the use of marijuana on its 1.2 million acre reservation in central Washington. And as far as the Nation is concerned, marijuana is illegal in its historical territory — 10.8 million acres of ancestral land it ceded to the United States in an 1855 treaty, but where the Yakama people maintain hunting, food-gathering and fishing rights.