Dozens of federal agents raided four shops on the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s reservation and seized undisclosed amounts of synthetic marijuana and other goods.
The raid happened around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 23. The 7,500-acre reservation near Basom, N.Y., in Genesee County straddles Niagara and Erie county borders 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. An estimated 90 agents armed with rifles and other weapons simultaneously raided Sacajawea, the Rez Smoke Shop, Arrowhawk Smoke Shop and Smoke Rings Tobacco Emporium. Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) took part in the raid, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the raid was prompted by recent cases of overdoses that sent young people to the hospital. Fake marijuana is a chemical that can be misted with herbs and sold as incense or bath salts and tea, and it can have dangerous side effects.
Darwin Hill, one of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation chiefs, said the nation’s council is reviewing the situation. “At this time we don’t actually have a statement that I could release to the press. We were in council when the raid occurred. There are a lot of things we have to review and we decided that we’re not ready to release a statement until we reach an additional step after a discussion with the U.S. attorney,” Hill said.
That discussion will take place on Monday, February 27. The fact that the nation wasn’t notified in advance is an issue, said Joe Heath, attorney for the Onondaga Nation. “The annoying thing” about the raid, Heath said, was that the U.S attorney had called Hill and “demanded he come to a meeting without telling what the meeting was about. The Tonawanda lawyer couldn’t reach him and then they went and conducted the raid without any notice to the (Nation’s) government.”
Heath said the raid puts the Tonawanda government in a “weird” position because their jurisdiction has been challenged. “They’ve asked the Tadodaho and me to go over along with their lawyer to the meeting with the U.S. attorney because, clearly, this is a (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy issue.” Tadodaho Sidney Hill is the traditional spiritual leader of the Confederacy. The Onondaga and Tonawanda nations are “very close,” Heath said, “not geographically, but we do a lot of work together.”
United States Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., who will attend the meeting on Monday, said he wasn’t aware that anyone was upset. ‘Certainly, nobody we spoke to was upset. We did speak to tribal leaders as the search was commencing,” Hochul said. But in terms of speaking to the leaders before the raid started, Hochul said that was not always possible. “Here’s the problem. Sometimes law enforcement can’t alert people to the impending execution of a warrant whether it’s a tribal nation or the city of Buffalo for the reason of safety. Heaven forbid there would have been a weapon and somebody had advance warning. There’d be a risk not only to the officers but to anyone in the store. I’m not speaking in terms of the leadership in this case at all, but sometimes law enforcement just can’t warn people in advance of an event.”
Hochul could not say precisely what was seized – or how much – because of the ongoing investigation and because the federal agents have not yet concluded an inventory of the goods that were seized “pursuant to federal search warrants.” The agents have to file an inventory of the goods that were seized with a court before that information is made public, Hochul said.
Synthetic marijuana was legal until recently. The substance was considered so dangerous that in October last year the DEA used its emergency rule-making authority to designate the synthetic substance as ‘illegal to sell intending for human consumption,’” Hochul said. Synthetic marijuana can cause seizures, accelerated respiration, catatonia and other affects, Hochul said. He said that other tribal nations have already banned or are about to ban synthetic drugs from their territories. Last month, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe banned fake pot from its reservation.
In addition to fake pot, federal agents also seized counterfeit merchandise and cigarettes made by unlicensed manufacturers that can also contain toxic substances such as fiberglass, Hochul said. Cigarettes produced by unregulated manufacturers not only pose a health problem, but also have the effect of harming tribal businesses in which the nations are regulating and licensing the manufacturing of cigarettes. “The Seneca Nation, which is the largest manufacturer in Western New York, has a very well regulated system in place thanks to the effort of President (Robert Odawi) Porter and the whole tribal leadership,” Hochul said.
Heath said he plans to bring documents to Monday’s meeting that he hopes will provide a model for an agreement between the nation and law enforcement agencies in which the agencies agree to notify the nation’s leadership prior to coming onto sovereign Indian land. The Onondaga Nation has such an agreement, Heath said, and it has worked well for years. “You need to have some respect for the fact that this is a sovereign government when it comes to law enforcement, particularly when it comes to drugs, which no government wants on its territory,” heath said.
But Heath had no kind words for the Tonawanda shop owners who operate businesses that are not licensed by the nation. “They use the nation’s sovereignty for their own personal gain and do nothing to support their own government. They do not abide by their own government’s regulations,” Heath said. “We hope this is an opportunity that provides a bridge to change that sort of behavior. It’s one thing to sell untaxed cigarettes on Indian land; it’s another thing to sell all this junk. They need to work under the control and regulations of their own government particularly when they cry ‘sovereignty,’” he said.
Hochul said he understands that the Tonawanda leadership is eager to remove the synthetic drugs from the community. ‘And our sympathies are obviously with the leadership. If you’re a tribal leader and you say to a business man, ‘We want you to remove this from the reservation’ and he says, ‘No,’ what other recourse do you have but to turn to federal authorities such as our office?” No arrests were made during the raid. “There won’t be arrests unless there’s a sufficient quantum of evidence to justify charges,” Hochul said.