Ho-Chunk Nation Decriminalizes Cannabis

Ho-Chunk police will not issue citations for pot possession.

A federally recognized tribe concentrated largely in the Great Lakes region announced last week that it will decriminalize cannabis.

“The Ho-Chunk Nation recognizes that marijuana and its derivatives are natural growth plants with medicinal and industrial applications,” the tribe said in a statement, as quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Indigenous people have used marijuana and hemp for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes and the Ho-Chunk Nation acknowledges its functional purpose.”

Rob Pero, founder of the nonprofit Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association, called it “a historic day for Ho-Chunk.”

“We commend their commitment to increasing accessibility to plant medicine. … They are building an environment now, before prohibition ends, that will position them to lead the industry, create sustainable economic opportunity and improve the health and wellbeing of our people,” Pero said, as quoted by the Journal Sentinel.

“Tribes are able today to self-determine their interests in cannabis and the complex landscape requires the navigation of local, tribal, state and federal policy,” Pero adde. “We see the reclassification empowering tribes to engage meaningfully throughout the supply chain, from farming to processing to retail and more, as well as to facilitate interstate nation-to-nation commerce.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation reportedly made the announcement on April 30. According to Wisconsin Public Radio, it means that cannabis will be decriminalized on tribal lands “and Ho-Chunk police will not issue citations for possession.”

What it does not mean, however, is that marijuana is legal there. Wisconsin Public Radio noted that “tribal law experts advise the drug is still illegal,” and that an “FAQ distributed within the Ho-Chunk nation indicates county or state police could still issue citations.”

“Wisconsin is one of six states that has criminal jurisdiction over Native Americans on reservation land under a law known as Public Law 280. The law applies to all federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin except for the Menominee, which is under the jurisdiction of the federal government,” the public radio station said, adding that it “could make it difficult to set up businesses that cultivate or sell cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes” and that it “could even deter customers who now travel to neighboring states where cannabis is currently legal.”

According to its official website, the Ho-Chunk Nation legislature “is comprised of four branches of government; executive, legislative, judicial and the general council,” which are “made up of 13 representatives called Legislators from four districts, who can serve up to two terms of four (4) years.” Three of the four districts are in Wisconsin, with the fourth covering all districts outside Wisconsin.

Both medical and recreational cannabis are illegal in Wisconsin –– one of the few remaining states with total prohibition on pot. 

A Republican-led effort to pass a medical marijuana bill in this year’s legislative session failed in February

The proposal “drew opposition for being too conservative in severely limiting who could have access to medical marijuana and how it would be distributed, while others faulted it for not going far enough,” according to the Associated Press, which added that Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate “objected to having state-run dispensaries, while Democrats pushed for full legalization.”

Democrats in the Badger State, including Gov. Tony Evers, has been an outspoken supporter of marijuana reform, pushing Wisconsin lawmakers to legalize both recreational and medical cannabis.

Evers said in January that he backed the GOP medical marijuana measure, even though it wasn’t as comprehensive as he would prefer. 

“I would think that getting it all done in one fell swoop would be more thoughtful as far as meeting the needs of Wisconsinites that have asked for it,” Evers said at the time. “But if that’s what we can accomplish right now, I’ll be supportive of that.”

Wisconsin could be losing out on precious tax revenue due to its ongoing prohibition. An economic analysis released last year found that neighboring Illinois, where marijuana is legal, has received millions of dollars from cannabis shoppers crossing the border from Wisconsin.

Ho-Chunk Nation leaders said that they anticipate the tribe “entering the cannabis business once it becomes legal in the state,” according to the Journal Sentinel.

The newspaper said that “tribal law experts say there’s still a legal question about whether tribal nations can allow cannabis sales on federal trust reservation land — land that isn’t subject to local jurisdiction or taxes but still must abide by federal law.”

“The only way to do that would be on tribal trust land/Indian country land, and since federal law still bans cannabis, no, there’s no way,” Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at the University of Michigan told the newspaper. “That doesn’t mean tribes won’t do it, but they are at the complete mercy of the whims of the federal government’s decision to prosecute or not. It’s no way to do business. Same is true even if the state makes it legal.”

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