Indian Country Remains Split on Cannabis While Hemp Poses Promise

Can hemp present new opportunities for Native American communities?
Indian Country Remains Split on Cannabis While Hemp Poses Promise

Cannabis is a plant that represents an opportunity for some…but pain for other various members of Indian Country and its roughly 573 nations. An opportunity exists in the form of hemp at this time. However, different tribal nations have gotten involved in legal marijuana despite being shut out of state-approved marketplaces. 

In other cases, nations have no interest in getting involved with the plant or its markets. Be it generational abstention, or a history of addiction and oppression, many want nothing to do with cannabis. In either case, many of the 5.6 million Native Americans today still see the plant as something that brings problems and destruction to lives and families. 

While education efforts are underway to repair the narrative, doing so for a people often isolated from the rest of the public proves to be a difficult undertaking.

A History of Pain Curtails Cannabis Optimism 

Just as any country would, not every Indian Country nation agrees on what to do with cannabis. “You’re getting all different walks of life, perspectives, and different views,” said Blue Quisquis, a cannabis and gaming consultant, and a member of San Diego’s San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians.

In some cases, such views began eras before, when tribes elected not to use the plant. For others, opinions formed over time due to a series of oppressive actions taken against Native Americans by the American government. 

Looking at early tribal history, cannabis has never been a point of agreement across the nations. As Douglas A. Berman wrote, the history between the plant and Native Americans is “tricky and unique.” Examples mentioned by Berman include the First Nation, who used cannabis in rituals. However, records of tribes like the Dakota and Lakota indicate no history of its medical practitioners utilizing the plant in ceremonies. 

The diverging tribal views of the plant would continue as time moved on. Substance abuse has been a point cited as the prime concern for many members. Today, Native Americans suffer from higher rates of substance abuse than any other ethnic groups. One factor considered for the high rate of substance abuse is systemic oppression from the U.S. government. Furthering that notion is the higher rate of death among Native Americans from police disputes than any other group of people. According to 2017 data from the Center for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2015, 2.9 Native Americans out of every 1 million died from “legal intervention.” 

Quiquis said a history of interactions with the police and federal government leaves many tribal members feeling uncertain. “A lot of our elders, they look at it still as a bad drug, because a lot of them went through that period of time.” Like many older people of color, Quisquis said elders remember police victimization and have passed the painful lessons onto the younger generations. He added that school programs, like D.A.R.E., only helped further drive negative images into younger tribal members. 

Regulations play their part as well. Quisquis placed focus on laws like Public Land 280 as a cause for further legal confusion. The bill, which transferred jurisdiction from the federal government to six states, is considered complicated and controversial since passing in 1953. The law is reported to be misapplied in many cases by state and federal lawmakers, often extending beyond its legal reach. 

Quisquis pointed towards Canada as the most recent example to give members pause for concern. He told High Times that Native Americans saw what some consider to be Canada’s latest effort to oppress cultivation as a reason not to not get involved. “They basically left them out on the federal level,” Quisquis said of the Canadian market. Since feeling left out of the original legal framework, First Nations tribes have continued to fight for inclusion in Canada’s market. 

While advocating for the benefits of hemp and other cannabis products, Quisquis acknowledges concerns in his own home state. 

Hemp Provides Where State-Sanctioned Cannabis Does Not

Several tribal cannabis proponents have expressed frustration being left out of California’s adult-use legal framework. After passing Prop 64 in 2016, some Native Americans expected tribes to be included in the marketplace. However, as tribes are under sovereignty to tribal and federal law, the rules of each state do not apply to them. As such, tribes are allowed to launch cannabis ventures, but not on land designated as California.

In response, several tribes in the state began setting up sites on their reservations. Legally bound to only tribal sales, the move marked a step closer towards the goals of several tribes in the states. Since 2017, 23 nations in California had lobbied lawmakers to include Native Americans in the marketplace. While a resolution was close to being reached, reports suggest the deal was killed when it asked tribes to waive their sovereignty in exchange for market inclusion.

Tribes reportedly welcome the state’s involvement, believing the two can share information for mutual gains. However, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill passing, many tribes have found hemp to be their likeliest point of access to the cannabis space. The passage of the Farm Bill allowed states and tribes alike to submit their plans for review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA). Dozens of tribes have submitted proposals so far, with numerous receiving approval to begin their production plans. 

With hemp, many see hope coming to Indian Country. Such confidence could help improve the quality of lives, diversify crop production and result in additional benefits created by the plant. In marijuana, Quisquis sees a community slowly coming around. However, he notes that many nations will continue to stigmatize and ban the plant for the foreseeable future. 

Quisquis’ efforts, as well as those made by other tribal professionals and advocates, aim to shape perceptions from the gateway drug mindset to that of opportunity. “There’s a lot of different areas that we speak on in education depending on each tribe,” said the consultant. “Each tribe is unique.”

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