In spite of a 2014 memorandum by the Justice Department giving Native American tribes permission to cultivate and sell cannabis on reservation lands, the federal government has apparently decided to go back on its word. On Wednesday, a band of drug agents were sent in to take down two tribal grow operations in Northern California, a raid that reportedly led to the seizure of around 12,000 plants and over 100 pounds of raw cannabis.
A press release issued by the Department of Justice indicates that the Drug Enforcement Administration teamed up with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bring the heat down on the Pit River XL Reservation and the Alturas Reservation in Modoc County over concerns that they had partnered with a tobacco company to produce marijuana on a large scale.
The search warrant states that probable cause for the raid was established based on word from a number of confidential informants that Canadian businessman Jerry Montour, the CEO of a leading cigarette manufacture, was funding the small tribe’s entire operation. A preliminary investigation uncovered at least 40 grow houses on the reservation, which was supposedly enough to give agents reason to suspect illegal activity.
During the raid, agents reportedly seized all of the cannabis as well as other valuable property, but no arrests were made. Lauren Horwood, a spokesperson with U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner’s office, said the five-member tribe attracted the attention of authorities because of the immense size of its operation. Aerial photographs, which suggest the tribe was not, at all, attempting to hide its operation, were attached to the search warrant to validate probable cause.
Federal prosecutors argue that the tribal grow operations were in violation of both federal statutes and provisions outlined in California’s medical marijuana law.
“The investigation of the cultivation facilities searched today indicates that both are commercial marijuana cultivation projects operated with the intent to transport large quantities of marijuana off tribal lands for distribution at various locations yet to be identified by the tribes,” Wagner’s office said in a statement. “These facts raise multiple federal enforcement concerns, including the diversion of marijuana to places where it is not authorized.”
Interestingly, the primary informant in this bust was Wendy Del Rosa, a member of the Alturas Rancheria tribe. She told federal agents that her brother, Phillip Del Rosa, had established a working relationship with the big tobacco firm Grand River Enterprises, and that she had taken an opposition. Previous reports find that she and her brother have been fighting for control of the tribe.
Even still, Native American tribes considering the business of marijuana may not be completely safe from the government’s wrath.
The fine print of the Cole Memorandum suggests that nothing “alters the authority or jurisdiction of the United States to enforce federal law in Indian country,” but that it would be left up to federal prosecutors to determine when law enforcement action was necessary. At the very least, this means the DEA can still come crashing in on tribal lands, seizing everything they can get their hands on without actually making an arrest.
It is for this reason that many of the 566 federally recognized Native American tribes across the United States are still nervous about concept of establishing a cannabis industry. Most agree that the language of Cole memo is simply too vague to be trusted.
Tribal attorney Lael Echo Hawk recently told the Washington Post that the situation with reservation-based cannabis markets and the United States government was “very complicated.” He suggests that tribes may need “to get some written assurance from their district attorney because possessing a Schedule I controlled substance carries serious penalties and is not something to be taken lightly.”
Overall, the Justice Department’s claim of taking a hands-off approach to legal marijuana has been a lie. In fact, even after the passing of an amendment to a federal budget aimed at protecting the medical marijuana community from prosecution, a bill that was signed by President Obama, the DEA has continued to raid dispensaries and shakedown unsuspecting patients all across the nation. Therefore, the Cole Memo, which many marijuana reform advocates suggested would finally give Native Americans “true sovereignty,” is likely just as worthless.
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