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Indigenous Innovation: How Tribal Nations Will Revolutionize the Cannabis Industry

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As the legalized medical and adult use cannabis markets begin to mature, one major game changer will be on the horizon: Tribal Nations. At the forefront of actively connecting indigenous people and the cannabis industry is Ultra Health, a cannabis company with ventures in multiple states.

Duke Rodriguez, CEO and President of Ultra Health, was available to answer a few questions about how the tribes will affect cannabis markets. Before founding Ultra Health in late 2010, Rodriguez served as the Chief Operating Officer, Board Member and Chief Financial Officer at Lovelace, Inc., a major healthcare company and HMO based in the Southwest. Rodriguez also served as the Cabinet Secretary of the State of New Mexico’s largest executive branch agency in 1996, and initiated statewide reform programs in welfare and Medicaid services. Before working for the State of New Mexico, Rodriguez was President and Chief Operating Officer of Diagnostek, Inc., an NYSE pharmacy benefit management company, with clients including Fortune 500 companies, major insurers and HMOs.

HT: What are some of the advantages Tribal Nations will have over traditional cannabis markets and dispensaries?

Duke Rodriguez: Tribes will develop a more responsive framework and adapt to changes in the marketplace. Some states have been restrictive and made political judgements on policy issues, including how long medical cards are valid, which conditions are covered and how potent products can be.

The tribes can create a robust and compliant model, while omitting the unnecessary red tape present in most partisan crafted models. American Indians will also be able to provide cannabis businesses with much needed services, like banking.

While these models will be robust and compliant, they will also be more streamlined and less duplicative. Many state programs were introduced as a political or a timing issue.

Because Indian Nations are generally a much smaller political body than a state or federal government, tribes will be able to overcome and avoid the state’s missteps by being able to change them more efficiently.

Native Americans will also have the advantage of building some of the country’s finest dispensaries.

The most visible example of this is Ultra Health’s partnership with the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. An 84,000 square foot cultivation facility, as well as two prestigiously located dispensaries—one that is 15,800 square feet—are in the works on reservation land.

Not only will these facilities be vast, but they will provide cannabis users an experience like none other. Live cannabis plants for viewing and other interactive displays are just the beginning.

How easily will indigenous people adopt cannabis? In some tribal nations, alcoholism and drug addiction are very prominent. Wouldn’t this history negatively impact their ideas about the medical and social use of cannabis?

Cannabis brings to the table a remedy for the mental, physical and social ills of these diseases with the added bonus of economic development. Cannabis can also treat symptoms of the addiction to substances, and prevent them. Opiate-related deaths and hospital visits have declined in states with cannabis legislation. Native Americans also have been more receptive to highlight and emphasize the science and medical applications of cannabis. It is culturally and historically appropriate for them, as they are a population generally supportive of natural and holistic healing.

It has also been easier for American Indians to recognize the value of accurately dosed, pharmaceutical grade products like those Ultra Health manufacturers with counsel from Israeli pharmaceutical group Panaxia. There is a large entrepreneurial market for adult use, and it’s attracting a population of all kinds of interests and motivations unseen in the tribes. Instead of emphasizing adult use first and medical second, they are properly emphasizing medical use first.

Unemployment rates are increasingly on the rise on reservations. What other long term benefits would the cannabis industry have on these nations other than providing jobs?

Today’s cannabis company becomes tomorrow’s packaging company, tomorrow’s manufacturers. And eventually these companies will become tomorrow’s event hosts, just as the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians is hosting the U.S. Las Vegas Cannabis Cup in partnership with Ultra Health. Another example is the Ultra Health Gathering of Nations Powwow, the world’s largest Native American powwow that attracts an attendance of nearly 100,000 people and has an economic impact of $20 million for the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The line of emerging ancillary services is infinite.

Tribal Nations will follow in the footsteps of states with forms of cannabis legalization, which have seen jumps in tourist activity. Engaging in cannabis is more than just cultivation, retail and wholesale distribution. Cannabis activities, especially the U.S. Las Vegas Cannabis Cup, have demonstrated a different angle to the cannabis market.

Local and regional event related activities, including conferences, can also be hosted at some of the fine casino facilities near major cities owned by Native Americans.

Events are a huge driver of economics, as they are a platform to demonstrate indigenous peoples’ abilities to handle these major public events with tens of thousands of attendees. Down the line, these nations could be hosting events the size of large-scale music festivals such as Coachella.

What tribes do you think will emerge as leaders in cannabis economic development?

These opportunities are not exclusive to any one nation. One might guess American Indians who were heavily successful in casinos may be the automatic predicted victors in cannabis. But cannabis will be successful regardless of a tribe’s location, size and status. Cannabis becomes the great equalizer and provides a level playing field, especially for those who did not benefit from gaming.

Although Tribal Nations involved with gaming may have more financial strength than the non-gaming nations, the investment capital needed for cannabis businesses is much smaller than casinos.

Can you tell me more about PL-280 tribes and how their status will affect their futures in the cannabis industry? And the non PL-280 tribes?

Most Native Americans will have a fair amount of autonomy to work with the federal government directly. Certain nations are designated PL-280 and will be working primarily with state governments. Some PL-280 states include Washington, Oregon and California.

If anything, those under PL-280 actually have an advantage because they are discussing cannabis initiatives with state and local governments. These bodies are more receptive than the federal government at first analysis, mostly because of cannabis’ Schedule 1 status, which has forced many federal authorities to take a hands-off approach.

The states have been more favorable in their reactions to American Indians interested in cannabis and have shown more willingness to foster guidance and give direction and feedback.

States are entering into compacts, allowing nations to do more than cultivate and dispense. The Ely Shoshone Tribe in Nevada has been approved for reciprocity eligibility. They issue their own medical cards, and have their cards respected by the state. This pattern will be followed and repeated with other tribes more often as time moves forward.

How can tribes avoid raids by the federal government, such as what happened to the Menominee Indian tribe in Wisconsin and the Alturas and Pit River tribes in California?

Whether PL-280 or not, communicating with government bodies will come with requirements. The key to success is Transparency. Transparency does not mean to sacrifice sovereignty. It means as a good neighbor, it is wise for one neighbor to tell another of their direction. Just as Tribal Nations take great offense at state or federal authorities not seeking their counsel before making decisions, Native Americans are more likely to be more progressive and advise authorities of their direction.

Ultra Health has been in conversations with many states’ Attorney Generals. Even with the forthrightness of the tribes in talking to these officials, the greatest response to date is to proceed with caution.

Would you say now is an especially good time for tribes to get involved in cannabis?

Yes. With experience in casinos, smoke shops, travel centers and gas stations, indigenous people are not going into this market blindly; they have more experience now than 20 years ago. Not to mention, tribes now more than ever are ready to adopt cannabis.

The adoption cycle for gaming was a slow and steady process, it didn’t happen overnight. The cycle will be much shorter for cannabis because of tribes’ prior experience and willingness to understand the medicine behind the plant. Another contributor to a quick adoption cycle is more and more attendees are appearing at tribal conferences particularly focused on cannabis and hemp. Ultra Health will be hosting its first annual Cannabis and Hemp Workshop in conjunction with Gathering of Nations on April 27, 2017. Tribal members will have the opportunity to learn and understand not only about cultivating and dispensing, but project financing, legal considerations, distribution, and the most up-to-date medical benefits of Cannabis sativa.

Hemp and cannabis come from the same genus, the only real difference is in THC levels or the end product. One may be turned into medicine, another into clothing or paper. Regardless of the end product, Tribal Nations will benefit from all cannabis industries and are undoubtedly on the brink of major progress.

Marissa Novel is Communications Specialist for Ultra Health.

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