The Suquamish Tribe owns and operates Agate Dreams, a retail marijuana dispensary in Poulsbo, Washington. Photo: Agate Dreams

Bill recognizes tribal sovereignty over marijuana amid uncertainty in Washington

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is hoping to clear up a cloud hanging over marijuana in Indian Country and in states across the nation.

A handful of tribes have legalized cannabis and are growing and selling marijuana in places like Washington and Nevada. But a shift in policy in Washington, D.C., has some wondering whether their sovereignty will be recognized by the Trump administration.

The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act), which was introduced in the 115th Congress on Thursday, puts to rest those doubts. If enacted into law, the measure would ensure that tribes and states can continue to determine their own marijuana policies.

“The Suquamish Tribe supports this reasoned and pragmatic approach to regulating marijuana in the United States," Chairman Leonard Forsman said following introduction of the bill. "It recognizes the dual sovereignty of states and tribal nations -- striking the appropriate balance and respect for each sovereign and their voters’ decisions regarding the decriminalization of marijuana."

Forsman's tribe was a pioneer in the marijuana industry, having signed the first cannabis compact in Washington state more than two years ago. The decision came after the Obama administration said it would honor tribal and state sovereignty when it comes to the plant.

The tribe has since opened Agate Dreams a retail marijuana outlet on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, just across Puget Sound from Seattle, the most populous city in the state. Sales there are governed by tribal law and by conditions in the compact, which addresses taxation, regulation and other issues.

“We were left with a situation where marijuana was legal all around us and only illegal on our reservation," Treasurer Robin Sigo said, explaining why the tribe decided to take action. "At that point we felt it was better to move forward with decriminalization because it would allow the tribe to establish a regulatory regime for marijuana and raise desperately needed tax revenue.”

But Indian Country expressed alarms earlier this year, when the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era guidance on marijuana. According to Suquamish, the decision was made without consulting tribes on a government-to-government basis.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and in the House think that was a wrong move.

"It’s time to reform American’s outdated marijuana policies," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). The STATES Act, she added, would "let states, territories and tribes decide for themselves how best to regulate marijuana – without federal interference."

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the Trump administration should respect the will of voters in places like Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012. But he noted that the Centennial State isn't alone when it comes to cannabis.

"The federal government is closing its eyes and plugging its ears while 46 states have acted," Gardner said.

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) introduced the House version of the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon).

"For too long the senseless prohibition of marijuana has devastated communities, disproportionately impacting poor Americans and communities of color," said Blumenauer. The Warm Springs Tribes recently got into the cannabis business, growing the plant on their reservation in Oregon in hopes of improving economic opportunities there.

The STATES Act doesn't just address marijuana. It removes federal restrictions on industrial hemp, ones that have kept tribes like the Menominee Nation and people like Alex White Plume, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from using their lands to grow a plant that does not carry the same drug characteristics as cannabis.

After a decade-long fight, White Plume secured a major victory two years ago when a federal judge lifted an injunction against his hemp farm on the Pine Ridge Reservationin South Dakota. The decision cited the shifts in federal policy during the Obama administration, as well as the enactment of the 2014 Farm Bill, which includes provisions regarding hemp development in states where it has been legalized.

The Department of Justice did not appeal the decision His family has since started regrowing hemp despite the change in power in Washington.

The federal government's role in enforcing marijuana and hemp laws has a great impact in Indian Country. Even after the Obama-era guidance, tribes in California, South Dakota and Wisconsin were raided or threatened with raids for growing crops.

Washington and Nevada have been the only states where tribes have not seen major problems. After Washington adopted the compact model, Nevada followed suit.

The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe has since opened NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, which bills itself as the largest marijuana dispensary in the planet. Offering service 24 hours a day -- including through a drive-up window -- the business is already a major part of the local economy, partnering with The Lights FC, the professional soccer team in Las Vegas.

"NuWu has invested all sorts of money and resources into growing downtown,” Lights owner Brett Lashbrook said in April, when the tribe's sponsorship with the team was announced.

Obama-era Guidance [Since Rescinded]:
Policy Statement Regarding Marijuana Issues in Indian Country (October 2014)