Hitting Pot Jackpot? Tribe Starts Medical Marijuana Cultivation

Courtesy Alex Cotton / Red Crow plans to lease the land

Another California tribe has announced its venture into the medical marijuana business.

The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians in Thermal, about 32 miles southeast of Palm Springs, recently entered into a partnership with Red Crow, a Native-owned cannabis company that designs, builds, manages and finances marijuana growing facilities for medical purposes.

“We are an impoverished tribe with a small casino that is barely keeping its head above water. We don’t have the cash flow like other tribes that have found success,” Mary Belardo, executive assistant to the tribal chairwoman, explained the reason for striking the deal. “The whole concept has potential to be an economic boom for the tribe, if done properly.”

While marijuana continues to be illegal at the federal level, 23 states—including California—have legalized it for medical use only, reports the Pew Research Center. According to statistics on the Red Crow website, the Golden State outshines all others in the legal cannabis market with $1.3 billion in sales, and the nearly 800-member Torres Martinez tribe is hoping to get a small piece of what is being touted as the fastest-growing industry in the United States.

Torres Martinez tribal members voted overwhelmingly (48 to 5) to move forward on the partnership with Red Crow. However, they still need tribal members to vote on the specific allocation of 47.2 acres of tribal land toward the growing and processing of organic medical cannabis. Red Crow said it will completely finance and manage the estimated $12 million project, and in exchange, the tribe will own 51 percent of what is produced and sold to licensed medical dispensaries.

The tribe will operate its cannabis business under the aegis of the Sovereignty Medical Tribal Corporation, an entity the tribe founded back in 2004 when it was considering another medical-related partnership with a pharmaceutical company that Belardo said eventually fizzled.

Richard Tall Bear Westerman, the CEO of Red Crow, explained why he and his partner, Rick Hill, an Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin Native and former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), reached out to the Torres Martinez tribe in the first place: “They have a lot of land and they aren’t as successful as other California tribes. Because they are so poor, we think it is a great opportunity for them,” he said. “We want to work with tribes where we can make a real difference. It’s not just about cannabis, it’s about medicine, jobs and building communities.”

Westerman is the son of Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a famous Dakota Sioux known for his accomplishments as an actor, artist, musician and political activist who died in 2007. Westerman named his cannabis company after his father. Red Crow has also struck a similar deal with the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians and is currently starting construction on Santa Rosa Farms. The Cahuilla tribe did not respond to a request for an interview with ICTMN.

The Torres Martinez spokeswoman said there is a lot of background work yet to do before the cannabis growing operation takes root—including resolving issues with the tribe’s water supply, in which an EPA investigation found high levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring element. “We are also currently developing regulations, putting business and operational plans together, and getting input from the sheriff and U.S. attorneys,” but Belardo anticipates the entire cannabis project will be completed in about six months.

Westerman said it will take a little longer. He projects that the growing and processing facility will be completed by January 2016 in preparation for what he expects will be the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in California.

So how will the lingering California drought affect the cannabis operation? “This is the desert, so drought is our middle name,” said Belardo. “Our water table is high and fluctuates, but as of now, it is high enough to have created artesian wells that had stopped flowing to begin to flow again.”

Westerman said the marijuana will be grown in a proprietary, state-of-the-art, secure building with solid walls known as an “automated light-deprivation production module”; it is not a greenhouse made of plastic, he emphasized. Belardo is not concerned about break-ins or security issues, either. “When we opened the casino, they said the mafia was going to come in and all that foolishness. It’s fear tactics. You can’t be successful if you go into something with fear.”

**NOTE:** The Desert Sun newspaper reported in 2010 that the Torres Martinez tribe potentially misused millions of dollars of funds allocated for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Belardo addressed this issue with ICTMN:*

“That story was sensationalized, from our point of view. We believe it had political implications from people who were running for office down here and trying to make a name for themselves. The accusations went absolutely nowhere, and we cleared the audit.”

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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