In June, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill that will pave the way for the state’s 27 tribes to grow and distribute cannabis products. The Ely Shoshone Tribe and the Yerington Paiute Tribe subsequently signed compacts with the state to cultivate, infuse, test and dispense marijuana, as well as issue medical marijuana cards, says Cassandra Dittus, CEO of Tribal Cannabis Consulting. That firm facilitated the legislation and agreements.
The two rural tribes join the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe in becoming medical marijuana providers. The Las Vegas tribe also signed a compact with the state and will open its facility in September.
Nevada tribal communities are particularly challenged in building sustainable economies. Most of the state’s tribes are in remote locations – Ely, for example, is in east-central Nevada along U.S. Highway 50, nicknamed “America’s Loneliest Highway.” The tribe owns only one truck stop, and other economic opportunities are very limited. In fact, the largest employer in the region is a copper, gold and molybdenum mine. Nor can Nevada tribes turn to gaming as Nevada is saturated with casinos, the legacy of once being the only state with legal gambling.
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“This is really going to help us provide economic development to our tribe and services to our small community,” says Ely Shoshone Tribal Council Member Diana Buckner. “The governor has worked with us on the legislation, and we commend him for working with tribes.”
Dittus says that the tribes she partners with are more focused on medical marijuana than recreational, although state voters approved the Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative in November 2016 to open the state to both uses. During the three-year process, “The tribes adopted regulatory codes that let them issue marijuana cards,” says Dittus. “Those cards are also accepted for reciprocity with the state of Nevada.”
Bill Brothers is president of Phoenix-based firm Arizona Facilities Supply, the largest consultation firm specializing in medical marijuana cultivation, research, facility management and software development in Arizona and Maryland. Brothers says it’s important that a tribe entering the cannabis industry work within certain strictures. Unlike Nevada, Brothers says that not all states have developed protocols for tribal and state reciprocity in issuing user cards. For example, “Arizona and Maryland allow medical usage,” he says. “But Nevada allows for both medical and adult, or recreational, use and possession by anybody age 21 and over.”
But, he suggests that the Nevada tribes should be in the clear, since Drug Enforcement Administration raids on tribal cannabis growers were in states where the particular tribes were not complying with state law.
However, Brothers also says that “possession is not as much as an issue” since the Cole Memorandum applies to tribes. This document, written by former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, states that the federal government will not necessarily pursue cases against well-regulated facilities that are operating within state law, and specifies the criteria that prosecutors will address, such as sales to minors. And tribes received an extra reassurance with the issuance of the Wilkinson Memorandum, issued in October 2014, which affirmed the provisions of the Cole Memorandum would apply to tribal lands.
There are also practical factors to consider when embarking on a medical marijuana operation: “People need to be aware that marijuana growing is not easy,” Brothers says. “Mold, mildew and bacterial pests are prevalent. It takes solid expertise to grow it commercially. There is no guaranteed success.” In fact, he knows of two operations that failed completely to raise viable crops.
But even with regulatory hoops to jump and the technical issues associated with commercial cultivation, more tribal communities are considering entering the market for cannabis products. “We have coalitions [such as the National Indian Cannabis Coalition] with the common goal of economic development,” says Dittus.