The Canadian government has been in turmoil over the legalization of marijuana, but Indigenous communities have been more divided than ever. The cannabis bust on a First Nation’s land highlights how some countries are rooted in their own unique legal systems and rights that may be drastically different from what mainstream Canada believes to be true.
As more states legalize recreational marijuana sales, a federal raid on a family marijuana grow on tribal grounds in northern New Mexico is spreading doubt and discontent about US drug enforcement objectives on Native American reservations.
Officers from the Bureau of Indian Affairs seized nine cannabis plants from a home garden at Picuris Pueblo managed by Charles Farden, a non-Native American who has lived there since boyhood. The 54-year-old is using medicinal marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Farden claimed he was taken aback when he was handcuffed as federal authorities took mature plants filled with buds, enough for a year’s supply.
Picuris Pueblo decriminalized medicinal marijuana for its members in 2015, after New Mexico authorized it in 2007. In June, a new state legislation broadened marijuana legalization for adults, allowing up to a dozen home-grown plants per household for personal use – with no weight restriction.
“I was simply honest and forthright with the officer.” “I answered, ‘My veggies, my medicinal cannabis,’ when he asked what I was growing.” The incident on September 29 was described by Farden as “unfortunate.” “And he said, ‘That may be an issue.’”
The raid has placed a pall over cannabis as a source of economic growth for Indigenous communities, while Picuris Pueblo and at least one other reserve seek deals with New Mexico that would enable them to launch marijuana companies. There are 23 federally recognized Native American communities in the state. It plans to start selling marijuana to the public in April.
More than two-thirds of states have legalized marijuana in some form, with four states voting in favor of recreational marijuana in the 2020 election and four more passing legislation this year. Despite the fact that the substance is still unlawful to possess, use, or sell in the United States, the government has refrained from taking action against them.
Some are questioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ stance on tribal grounds like Picuris Pueblo, where it provides police to enforce federal and tribal laws in a typical arrangement in Indian Country. Other tribes contract with the BIA to run their own police forces.
A BIA special agent in charge said in a recent letter to Picuris Pueblo tribal Gov. Craig Quanchello obtained by The Associated Press that the agency will not tell its officers to stand down in Indian Country — and that marijuana possession and cultivation remains a federal crime despite changes in state and tribal law.
The letter notes that “prior warning of law enforcement activities is often not acceptable.” “The BIA Office of Justice Services is responsible for enforcing federal law in Indian Country and does not advise its employees to ignore federal law infractions.”
The BIA and its parent agency, the Interior Department, refused to comment and did not reply to the Associated Press’ requests for further information on the raid and its implications. Farden has not been charged and has no idea what the future holds for him.
President Joe Biden issued an order this week directing numerous Cabinet agencies to collaborate in the fight against human trafficking and violence on Native American reservations, where violent crime rates are more than double the national average.
He didn’t mention marijuana, despite previously stating that he favors decriminalizing the substance and expunging prior marijuana convictions. He opposes marijuana legalization at the federal level.
Leland Berger, a Portland-based criminal defense attorney who advised the Oglala Sioux Tribe after it passed a cannabis ordinance last year, points out that the Justice Department’s marijuana priorities in Indian Country were outlined in writing under President Barack Obama, then reversed under President Donald Trump, with little written public guidance since.
“It astounds me that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is implementing the federal Controlled Substances Act on tribal grounds while the tribe has passed an ordinance protecting the practice,” he added.
Tribal companies have adopted a number of tactics to get a presence in the cannabis sector throughout the United States, straddling state and federal law and jurisdictional difficulties.
In Washington, the Suquamish Tribe played a pioneering role by partnering with the state in 2015 to create a retail marijuana business on the Port Madison tribe, which is located across Puget Sound from Seattle. It offers marijuana from dozens of different growers.
Several Nevada tribes have their own enforcement section to guarantee that state and tribal-authorized marijuana programs, including a registry for home-grown medicinal marijuana, are followed. Tribal dispensary taxes remain with the tribes and are used to fund community betterment activities.
The Oglala Sioux of South Dakota became the first tribe to establish a cannabis market without state laws in early 2020, backing medicinal and recreational use in a vote on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A statewide referendum months later legalized marijuana in South Dakota, prompting a legal challenge from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration, which is currently pending in the state Supreme Court.
Native American tribes have a “inherent and inalienable” right to self-governance, according to the US government. However, federal law enforcement authorities continue to act on a case-by-case basis to enforce cannabis prohibition, according to Berger.
“The tribes are sovereign countries with treaties with the United States, and concurrent jurisdiction exists in certain circumstances….” He described it as a “hybrid.”
With the permission of the Navajo Nation president, state, federal, and tribe law enforcement collaborated in a raid on extensive marijuana plantations with temporary greenhouses in northeastern New Mexico in late 2020. More than 200,000 plants were confiscated by authorities. New Mexico has set a maximum of 1,750 plants per registered medicinal cannabis grower at the time.
The cannabis sector, according to Quanchello of Picuris Pueblo, provides economic potential for tribal territory that are too distant to operate a full-fledged casino. Picuris runs a smoke shop from a roadside trailer and is getting ready to establish a service station with a sandwich cafe and a mini-market.
“By nature, we’re farmers. Quanchello said, “It’s something we can do here and be excellent at.” “It’s something we don’t want to miss.”
He called the BIA raid an insult to Picuris Pueblo, comparing it to federal enforcement in 2018, when the tribe’s excursion into medicinal marijuana resulted in the uprooting of around 35 cannabis plants.
In 2019, state legislature passed standard medicinal marijuana rules on tribal and nontribal lands.
New Mexico’s Democratic-led Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stressed the need to generate employment, boost state income, and address concerns about drug prohibition harming racial and ethnic minorities when they legalized recreational marijuana this year.
Where states have thriving legal markets for marijuana, tribal cannabis firms face less danger of intervention from federal law enforcement, according to Judith Dworkin, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based attorney specialized in Native American law.
She said that “it’s a lot simpler for a tribe to take a stance that they want to do something comparable” to the state. “There’s still a chance.”
At Picuris Pueblo, Quanchello views federal enforcement of cannabis regulations as unpredictable and biased.
“As a tribe, we may spend a million dollars on a project and believe it’s OK. And it might be halted because of a rogue cop or someone who doesn’t feel something is right,” he continued.