Washington, D.C.- Today, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a listening session to hear comments from Tribal leaders, their designees, and other experts from Native communities on Tribal cannabis commerce and related equities.
The virtual listening session was well attended, with over a hundred tribal cannabis advocates and experts speaking on behalf of concerns as well as solutions to ensuring tribal communities greatly impacted by the war on drugs are not left out of federal decriminalization efforts by Congress.
Jennifer Romero, Staff director and Chief Counsel to Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) opened the “Cannabis in Indian Country” listening session framing an evolving political and economic landscape for tribes. The feedback was guided by four questions provided to tribal stakeholders ahead of time. Romero stated that due to the “overwhelming response to this listening session” participant comments were limited to three minutes.
The bi-partisan listening session lasted nearly two hours with committee staff encouraging written comments provided to [email protected] by July 8th. Staff representatives introduced themselves and included council and policy advisors for Senator Schatz and Senator Murkowski’s offices. The listening session started with a glitch as a few of the participants encountered technical issues with audio, but ended with many of the participants being allowed to speak beyond the allocated three minutes.
The overriding theme for the session started with and ended with a theme of non-interference with tribal cannabis economies, transportation and regulation at the federal, state and local level. Seneca Nation Council member Josh Jimerson and tribal attorney Lee Redeye provided the opening remarks and comments and the Nations position on cannabis decriminalization. According to Redeye, the Seneca Nation holds a unique position in Indian Country, with the Seneca Nation having “absolute and exclusive title to its lands as recognized by treaty between the Seneca Nation and the United States government.” With this position and legal foundation, the Seneca Nation sees cannabis compacting with the State of New York as a violation of the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty.
The autonomy of tribes, free from state intervention or federal language mandating any authority in cannabis development was brought up by many of the speakers. Several of the comments were related to protections for Nation-to-Nation transportation and included references to current federal language in the 2018 Farm Bill related to transportation and state non-interference.
Reinstatement of the Cole Memorandum was also mentioned by several participants including Mississippi Choctaw Band of Indians Don Kilgore, who serves as Counsel to the Council. Kilgore stated the tribe had reached out to the United States Attorney General and Biden Administration requesting that they reinstate the memorandum(s) rescinded under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions but “had not heard back from them. That would be a big help to us in addressing the federal concerns about cannabis on reservation lands.”
Frank Demolli, an attorney and judge for Santa Clara Pueblos for the past 26 years sent his regards on behalf of Governor Chavarria, who was on travel. Demolli commented that the Santa Clara Pueblo does not participate in any form of cannabis legalization because “Santa Clara Pueblo does not want to step into the legal quick sand right now.” Demolli requested that the Committee enact legislation ending the discriminatory practices of the U.S. for possession, use and sales of marijuana within Indian Country. “All of these promises about not prosecuting… any Judge or attorney knows they do not hold water. It’s very nice, but they can’t be used as a defense. So, apparently right now DOJ’s unwritten policy is to ignore the illegal possession, use and sale of marijuana in the states. However, they do prosecute the citizens of Indian Country for the same thing. And so, we would like the committee to consider passing some kind of legislation to end this discriminatory prosecution.”
Mary Jane Oatman, Executive Director of the Indigenous CANNabis Coalition (ICANNC) and member of the Nez Perce Tribe commented on a history of adversarial tribal-state relationship in Idaho, with concerns for an overarching political landscape that is opposed to tribal cannabis economic development. She stated that her tribe has not moved forward with cannabis due to fears of “interference of state and federal agencies in Indian Commerce in cannabis.” Oatman provided comments for legislative solutions, stating “We have many robust and compliant tribal operations to that we need to look to… The biggest legislative solution that we have as our battle cry for the Indigenous CANNabis Coalition is deference to tribal sovereignty and non-intervention and non-interference from states. We need to do everything that we can to keep states at arm’s length in cannabis economies because Tribe’s know how to do these things for the public health and safety of our communities.”
Whitney Gravelle, President of the Bay Mills Indian Community introduced her tribe as being active participants in the state of Michigan and one of few tribal operators in the United States that functions without a state-tribal cannabis compact in the operation of Northern Lights Cannabis Company. “Bay Mills Indian Community licenses, regulates and oversees the operations of our facility as a sovereign nation. It is extremely important that tribal nations are treated with respect because we are more than capable of regulating cannabis, just as much as we regulate many of the other complex legal jurisdictional schemes within our reservations.” She mentioned transportation and taxation concerns as well the existence of federal Indian case law that determines taxation that could be addressed in cannabis reform. Gravelle mentioned another concern hindering tribal participation, stating that “many tribal law enforcement agencies go through great hurdles to achieve their SLEC cards and those should not be threatened to be taken away or jeopardized because their tribal nation has decided to engage in economic diversity and supporting their tribal operations by entering the cannabis industry.”
Jyl Wheaton-Abraham, a member of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and owner of Medical Grade Inc. and one of the first Native women owned and licensed hemp farms in the U.S. and business owner with over two decades of experience spoke about how she has to live and operate her business 550 miles away from her tribal community because of the hostile views on cannabis in Idaho. She stated that the greatest barrier to safe and legal cultivation and transportation of raw cannabis and cannabis products by tribes is the current schedule 1 listing.
“By misrepresenting cannabis as a dangerous substance with a high potential for abuse and with no medical use… creating a huge educational gap in tribes considering any kind of cannabis business simply because the Schedule 1 listing mischaracterizes the plant.” Wheaton-Abrahams also spoke about the need for banking solutions, as small business owners and marginalized groups face great obstacles in trying to operate legitimate cannabis businesses.
“Federal funding for small business like mine who practice sustainable regenerative agricultural methods. As tribal communities get into farming cannabis, I would like to see less emphasis on large scale, industrial farming practices which promote soil erosion and soil degradation, water loss and contamination and more of an emphasis on soil building methods.”
Mary Jane Oatman