Legal Loopholes Are Keeping Native Americans out of Cannabis’ Richest State

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I met Lindsey Renner, the owner of Native Humboldt Farms, in April when I interviewed her for High Times. Born, adopted, and raised behind Humboldt County's redwood curtain, Renner grew up as the "other" in her family because of her dark skin. Her biological father is Native American, born of the Wailaki people. But for years, Renner’s Native American side remained a mystery.

In 2011, she was living in a very remote part of Blocksburg, California helping her husband grow cannabis under California's Proposition 215, when she started to learn more about her Native American heritage. One day she was on the phone with her paternal grandmother when she made a discovery that led to an undeniable truth.

"I know exactly where you are," confessed Renner's grandmother. Her grandmother directed her down a road that led to a little picket fence where she found a cemetery with a little gravestone. It was her great aunt’s gravesite.

In 1939, Lucy Young (Y-ell-ai-chah-ga)—Renner’s third great-aunt who lived through the white colonial invasion during the 1850s and '60s—recalled the details of the white settlers who came to Northern California and forced the Wailaki Tribe, along with the Yuki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlaki, and Pit River Tribes, onto the Round Valley Reservation in Mendocino County, California.

“My grandpa, before white people came, had a dream,” Young shared in an interview with the California Historical Society. “My grandpa said ‘white rabbit’—he means white people—‘gonna devour our grass, our seed, and our living. We won’t have nothing more, this world.’”

Young says that her grandfather didn’t live to see the white invaders take control of their land. But Young, who lived to be 100 years old, witnessed the massacre at Fort Seward, which is 10 miles from the farm where Renner currently grows her cannabis.

Survival is something Native Americans, like many minorities in the United States, are still actively defending their right to. With state legalization and the economic promise of the burgeoning cannabis industry, Native Americans too are hoping to cultivate the plant.

But Native Americans living on reservations don’t have easy access to California’s legal market because the sovereignty of their nations is being stymied by the state's conflicting cannabis laws.

"Native Americans living on reservations don’t have easy access to California’s legal market because the sovereignty of their nations is being stymied by the state's conflicting cannabis laws."

“My tribe has an ordinance down on the Round Valley Reservation, so their tribal members are allowed to grow cannabis on their land,” shared Renner. “I have a manufacturing factory in Eureka, which is not on the reservation. But I get my cousins reaching out to me saying: ‘We grow cannabis on the reservation, but we don't have retail facilities, we don't have manufacturing, we don't have a way to get it on the market.’”

Blue Quisquis, who is a member of the Kumeyaay Tribe from San Pasqual is a tribal hemp and cannabis consultant and CIO at Sapphire MJ Solutions. He has been setting up commissions and regulatory agencies in the gaming industry since 1999. Quisquis says that answers to the question of cannabis self-determination for Native Americans begins with understanding what sovereignty means and actively questioning the language used by federal, state, and local governments laws.

“Everyone has this perception that tribes can do whatever because they are sovereign. that we don't have to follow any laws” says Quisquis. “Well, that's just not the case. We are sovereign but we have to make our own laws to allow or disallow anything on our land.” And tribal sovereignty is questionable when it’s legally bound from above.

The California Native American Cannabis Association (CNACA) estimates that at least 35 of California’s 109 tribes are in the process of developing some form of cannabis enterprise, but with limitations. The Round Valley Reservation does not allow the commercial reselling of cannabis on tribal lands but it does support individual tribal members right to grow cannabis for their own personal use.

A former tribal council member and grower on the Round Valley Reservation, who chose to remain anonymous, says that the biggest concern amongst the tribe is putting their sovereignty and funding at risk if they did choose to collectively get into the cannabis business.

“Our tribe has never tried to set up a business in the cannabis industry but it has supported individual tribal members,” the source told Miss Grass. “In our tribe, we adopted the Wilkinson memorandum in whole and put it into our regulations and stated why the tribe has no intentions of trying to get into the legal business. But we support members rights to do so because ... they are also California residents.”

Conditional sovereignty

CNACA defines tribal sovereignty as “the inherent authority of tribal nations within the US to govern themselves; and the ability of tribes to manage and control their own destinies and to operate without incursion into their legal and business affairs by the state.” They also include the federal government's definition, which is “domestic dependent nations”.

Section 5416(c) of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control Order of Adoption is a direct challenge to Tribal Nations sovereignty:

“A delivery employee shall not deliver cannabis goods to an address located on publicly owned land or any address on land or in a building leased by a public agency. This prohibition applies to land held in trust by the United States for a tribe or an individual tribal member unless the delivery is authorized by and consistent with applicable tribal law.”

Quisquis’ problem with the language used in policy 5416(c) is the government’s use of words like 'prohibition' and 'individual tribal members'.

“When 'or an individual tribal member,' which is myself; I cannot get legal, state accessed cannabis to my own personal home just because it resides within the boundaries of a reservation. specifically wrote in regulations that prohibit that. To me if you want to talk about social equality and justice, how is 5416(c) not a social injustice against us? How is that not discrimination?"

"How is 5416(c) not a social injustice against us? How is that not discrimination."
“I can understand the tribe because you're talking about a government agency, but when you're bringing it down to an individual tribal member and you're that delivery must be authorized and consistent with tribal law," he says. "Well, what is the burden just placed on me because I cannot get medical cannabis delivered if I am a medical cannabis patient. I can't get medical cannabis delivered to me because you strictly prohibited it—unless I’m able go to my tribe and get it authorized. If that happens then the tribes federal funding can be cut.”

Dave Vialpando, executive director of CNACA, says that there should be no reason that cannabis products aren’t delivered to reservations like they are delivered to different cities and counties.

The wording in 5416(c) is a direct challenge to tribal sovereignty because if tribes were to consider getting into the business of cannabis, they're required to waive their sovereign immunity and give their regulations over to the state.

“This requirement by the state treats sovereign tribal nations like businesses applying for state licensing. Because the state restricts state-licensed suppliers and retailers from only doing business with other state licensed suppliers and retailers, tribes are essentially cut out of the state-licensed market unless they agree to be treated like businesses by the state rather than governments.”

Quisquis also points out how laws like PL-280, which was passed by the federal government and gives the state of California jurisdiction over Native Americans living on reservations for all things criminal. “If you're talking about social equality and all of these convictions getting expunged and you're trying to help everybody, well specifically gave the state authorization to come and prosecute tribal members on their own lands for cannabis, prior to ending the prohibition.”

"I can't get medical cannabis delivered to me because strictly prohibited it—unless I’m able go to my tribe and get it authorized. If that happens then the tribes federal funding can be cut."
“Tribes which have legalized cannabis operations on tribal lands move the activity from criminal behavior to civil-regulatory business, similar to what California has done through legislation,” says Vialpando. “Unfortunately, social equity programs and funds the state has allocated for enforcement targeting illegal cannabis operations do not apply to tribal lands.

Tribes engaged in legal cannabis operations are using portions of revenues from the business activity to fund tribal infrastructure and community needs, social equity programs, and the eradication of illegal cannabis operations on tribal lands.” Vialpando and Quisquis know that, if given a fair chance, tribes would be able to govern themselves without the need for federal, state, or local government invasion. So Vialpando and CNACA are working to create meaningful dialogue around the issues of tribes access to California's legal cannabis market. He says that because the state sees tribes as legally subservient to state government, their lack of confidence not only limits tribes access and keeps them in perpetual limbo.

Quisquis says that the gaming industry shows just how self-sufficient Native American tribes are and that fact scares federal, state, and local governments because it threatens their tax dollars. CNACA even proposes that one of the advantages of commercial cannabis activity on tribal lands would be that “the taxes collected by cities, counties, and the state from the sale of tribal-generated cannabis products through state-licensed retailers remain with those governments."

Tribal nations want to build government-to-government partnerships, exchange knowledge, and create economic stability for all of the citizens living in the state. What if everyone was on one-accord when it comes to cannabis? A plant that is supposed to provide clarity and agency is being cultivated in a country that refuses to allow economic opportunity for all, especially minorities.

"A plant that is supposed to provide clarity and agency is being cultivated in a country that refuses to allow economic opportunity for all, especially minorities."
“As tribes across the state have demonstrated for nearly four years now, tribal regulation is more thorough, less bureaucratically cumbersome, socially responsible, and more collaborative with regard to all impacted stakeholders, including cannabis enterprise operators and employees, consumers, community members, and public safety officials, than the state’s ever-changing and unwieldy encyclopedia of regulations across a wide swath of state agencies,” says Vailpando.

The idea of a fair cannabis industry, like the cultural concept of fairness at large, is based on many illusions. One is that legalization will make it easier for minorities to get into the industry and prosper. California’s confusing laws are proof that this is not true.

The cannabis industry is only skimming the surface of its limitations around inclusivity when it comes to the First Nations people of this country. The conflicting laws and language stem from colonialism. We must acknowledge that the same people creating the laws are the same people that created the problem.

Activist, CEOs, and leaders in this industry say they believe in social equity, but unless they are a minority whose livelihood has been negatively impacted because of systemic racism, then they will never understand how hard it is to economically benefit from a growing industry and have your rights denied because you are not a white male.

It’s 2019 and colonialism isn’t over. It’s ongoing. Native Americans have the right to profit from this industry, but legal obfuscation is steadily limiting their access. If there is no freedom within the legal cannabis space, then “the land of the free” does not yet exist. Not until all minorities are included.

Lyneisha Watson is the High Folks columnist for High Times Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Blavity, and Black Girl in Om.