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Weed On The Rez?

In a memo that went public last Thursday, the Department of Justice directed U.S. attorneys to back off any Indian tribes collectively choosing to grow or sell marijuana on reservation lands. Amidst the sweeping changes in American cannabis law, you can add reservations to the complicated hodgepodge.

Weed On The Rez?

December 16, 2014

With more states ending the war on weed and a victory for cannabis in the recent spending bill, it’s quite clear the decentralization of marijuana is beyond stopping – there are now 32 states with some type of medical marijuana laws on the books. This decision is expectedly the feds’ quick solution for how recreational marijuana will work for these so-called “sovereign nations.”

Oklahoma City U.S. Attorney Sanford C. Coats has already spoke out that it won’t be happening anytime soon in his home state. He told the Oklahoman: “We’ve had no indication from our tribes, in the western district, at least, that they have any interest in this. Practically, I can’t see how that would even be possible in Oklahoma because we don’t have any legalized sale of marijuana here, medical or otherwise.”

Whether he has jurisdiction to do so remains to be seen. For tribes to meet DOJ criteria and keep federal prosecutors at a distance, they will have to meet eight basic guidelines, just as states do. Included are things like not selling weed to minors and making efforts to keep it out of the hands of criminal syndicates and the black market.

Since Europeans arrived in North America, they’ve been trying to control Indians, offering commandments from on high. More are becoming aware of how little has changed. Apparently the feds failed to consult with tribes before the LA Times broke the story last week, and a huge burden suddenly dumped onto law enforcement, state governments and of course, the reservations, who are already burdened with the symptoms of poverty.

Here are just a few of the rather basic questions the U.S. government seems to have disregarded: How do tribal leaders and members feel about marijuana? What do tribes know about marijuana and marijuana regulation? How will tribes pay for such regulations to be established: training, personnel, etc.?

“I don’t think this is on anybody’s radar,” said Travis Noland, a media spokesman for the Cherokee Nation. Troy Eid, an expert on Indian law in the U.S., told The Daily Beast he’s puzzled by the news: “To my knowledge, there was no formal consultation done with the tribes on this policy.…There are requirements in federal law and federal executive orders that the federal government must consult with tribes before making a declaration of policy,” he said.

Living With History

The culture clash we’re looking at is over five centuries old, one side with nature, the other technology. Many early white settlers were quick to demonize new faces and unique customs, a coping device to justify the ambitions of Manifest Destiny, which likely doubled colonial fears by directly associating Indians with violent and evil forces.

Author-adventurer Ernest Thompson Seton still captures a fundamental point: “The culture and civilization of the White man are essentially material; his measure of success is, ‘How much property have I acquired for myself?’ The culture of the Red man is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, ‘How much service have I rendered to my people?’”

Alex White Plume, an Oglala Lakota elder and war veteran, took on the DEA from 2000-2002 to cultivate industrial hemp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A Shift of Substance

Persistent social justice issues rarely see the light of day in the media, much for the reasons they haven’t over generations. But with the historical scars evident and cannabis coming, the real question becomes: Besides dollars and cents, what role, if any, could marijuana play in actually rebuilding these communities?

Before you gasp, consider that to permit alcohol alone is doing much more harm than good for the tribal economy and local law enforcement, especially in states where marijuana is already a legal and thriving industry. And yes, addiction is a clear problem on reservations, but cannabis has far different qualities and effects on the mind/body than alcohol, just compare the hangovers.

You don’t hear doctors looking to use alcohol as a natural remedy anymore, while cannabis only grows in its medical applications. Weighing out the legitimacy of cannabis means keeping less-stigmatized substances like opioids, alcohol and tobacco close by for context, and beware generic “drugs.” The science says marijuana does not destroy organ tissue or a society like alcohol, prescription pain pills and even common over-the-counter medications, and has shown that it can restore tissue and halt tumor growth. Pending results from cannabis-PTSD studies in 2015, the U.S. could see the plant entering the toolkit for psychologists and doctors in states permitting it.

Many indigenous communities clearly struggle from a history of trauma and unbalanced patriarchy. Without work, one can only try to cope with the bleak circumstances they’ve been handed. So much personal and collective trauma has carved deep wounds in native culture, much of which has been lost to history. (more on cannabis & PTSD)

But looking at similar symptoms in soldiers, it’s pretty clear we’re talking about something much larger here. Though often only discussed through soldiers’ harrowing war stories, PTSD is not only a soldier’s disease, it’s a human condition.

One UK study sorts out the harmfulness of substances like cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms in comparison to more common “drugs” that manage to evade the rhetoric by way of consistent conditioning and fatter marketing budgets than your dope peddler. Cannabis is even being effective as a therapy – through it’s growth and consumption – inside, of all places, the walls of a Colorado prison.

Excessive alcohol use was responsible for 88,000 U.S. deaths each year between 2006 and 2010, costing the economy $224 billion according to a January 10, 2014 report in by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The actual death rate was highest among Native Americans at over 60 alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 people, statistics which highlight an ongoing public health problem in the U.S.

Meanwhile, since Jan. 1, Colorado has hauled in more than $60 million in taxes, licenses and fees from marijuana sales. Who knows where those numbers will be after ski season has its turn with flocking tourists? Big profits have a funny way of changing minds, especially among casinos hoping to lure in more customers and reservations desperate for a working economy.

No one knows exactly how many American Indians will take advantage of the new policy, but expect many tribes to remain wary of bringing any “drugs” onto the reservation, where the war on drugs takes the face of a long-standing battle against addiction. But please, more questions than answers for now, because it could become not an enemy, but a decent ally to the boozy wreckage plaguing the rez. There's a Lakota saying, and I'm sure many others like it, that reminds us, "Everything is medicine."

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