Let It Be Pot: Two Washington State Tribes on Board

iStock/“It’s more accessible now, except the Mexican mafia is no longer making the money and there is no more horrific dumping of trash and pollution. I was ecstatic when [the ban] was removed, because now there’s one set of rules for everyone.”

Let It Be Pot: Two Washington State Tribes on Board.

For the Suquamish Tribe and the Squaxin Island Tribe, licensing the retail sale of marijuana and legalizing its use on their lands now seems unavoidable.

Thousands of motorists a day take State Highway 305 through Suquamish’s Port Madison Indian Reservation on their way to and from the neighboring cities of Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island. The reservation’s residents include non-Native Americans allowed under voter-approved state law to use marijuana.

The Squaxin Island Tribe’s reservation is near U.S. 101, 16 miles northwest of the state capital of Olympia.

No matter how Suquamish and Squaxin people feel about marijuana, it’s clear their governments could not ignore it. “The state legalized this. It was brought to our doorstep by a neighboring government,” Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said. While some tribal citizens have mixed feelings about marijuana, “the fact is, it’s here,” Forsman said.

The Suquamish Tribe and Squaxin Island Tribe have legalized marijuana and in September signed 10-year compacts with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board; Squaxin’s retail marijuana store, “Elevation,” opened for business November 12 on the Squaxin Reservation. It is believed to be the first marijuana retailer owned by a Native nation in the U.S. “Agate Dreams,” to be operated by a Suquamish Tribe business entity, is expected to open in early December on Highway 305, near Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort.

Richard Walker/The Suquamish Tribe's Agate Dreams marijuana retail shop is located next to the Tribe- owned Longhouse Texaco gas station and smoke shop on busy Highway 305, and down the street from the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort.

For Native nations near urban areas, legalizing marijuana use has some advantages. Had marijuana possession and use remained illegal under Suquamish law, enforcement on the 7,657-acre reservation – where 3,581 acres are owned by non-Indians – “would have been quite complex,” Suquamish Police Chief Mike Lasnier told the North Kitsap Herald (county sheriff’s deputies and Suquamish police are customarily dispatched to the same calls and decide jurisdiction at the scene). “We actually supported the council in making the change so there wouldn’t be that disparity. We — all of law enforcement — have bigger issues to deal with, like meth and heroin.”

Lasnier said tribes that legalize marijuana can set the ground rules on how marijuana is processed and sold on their lands, heading off environmental problems associated with clandestine marijuana cultivation.

“Everyone who has wanted marijuana has had marijuana,” Lasnier told ICTMN. “It’s more accessible now, except the Mexican mafia is no longer making the money and there is no more horrific dumping of trash and pollution. I was ecstatic when [the ban] was removed, because now there’s one set of rules for everyone.”

This fiscal year, which began July 1, retail marijuana has generated an average total daily sales of $2.3 million in Washington state; those sales are generating tax revenues that can be used to bolster law enforcement and other public services. According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, the State of Washington charges an excise tax of 37 percent on all taxable sales of marijuana, marijuana concentrates, useable marijuana, and marijuana-infused products.

From July 1 to November 23, the state’s 655 active producers and processors and 192 active retailers reported $259.7 million in sales and paid $64.9 million in excise taxes, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. By the end of the fiscal year, Kitsap County – the Suquamish Tribe’s neighboring jurisdiction – is expected to receive $98,924.69 for marijuana-law enforcement. King County, another neighbor, is expected to receive $965,307.15. All told, $2.7 million will be distributed to counties, $3.2 million to cities, the board reported.

Suquamish and Squaxin won’t get a share of the state’s excise tax, because the state won’t impose an excise tax on their lands. But according to the compact, Suquamish and Squaxin will charge a tax equivalent to the state excise tax on sales to non-Native customers on their lands. All tax revenue collected by Suquamish and Squaxin will be used for Tribal government services. The competitive edge: Like any government, Suquamish and Squaxin are free to impose their own local sales tax rates. But that rate can be lower than that imposed by neighboring local governments.

Keep in mind, even though recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington and Colorado, state law does not trump federal law. In 2013, after voters in those states approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memorandum setting forth the eight enforcement priorities of the federal government, which emphasized preventing access to marijuana by minors, preventing the criminal element from involvement in the industry, and preventing diversion of product out of state. The Justice Department later clarified in a memo that the same priorities should guide federal enforcement priorities in Indian country.

According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, the state’s regulatory system for marijuana and the rules written by the board “appears to meet” those eight priorities, and that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office “is maintaining an open dialogue with the federal government and the [board] is moving forward to carry out the expectations of the [Justice Department] under the new law.”

Because the Suquamish Tribe is sovereign and self-governing, it did not have to compact with the state. But it chose to do so, because the state had already developed the rules, with U.S. Justice Department guidance, for keeping the industry clean. “We wanted to make sure we were close to DOJ guidelines,” Forsman said.

So, how does legalized cannabis jibe with a culture that teaches its young people the importance of alcohol-free, drug-free, tobacco-free living — a culture for whom substances were long the salve for generational traumas like loss of land, discrimination, and efforts to force assimilation?

Suquamish Tribal Council member Robin Sigo, who has a master’s degree in social work and is former director of the Tribe’s Wellness Center, told the North Kitsap Herald the presence of cannabis locally presents another opportunity to empower young people to make healthy choices. “Because it’s legal, adults 21 and older get to make that choice [of whether to use cannabis]. But that doesn’t mean we endorse it,” said Sigo, who also leads the Healing of the Canoe Project, which teaches young people about making healthy lifestyle choices. “We’ve really moved away from the ‘just say no’ model and are now focused on giving youth and families information about how it might affect them, so they can get to make the decision themselves.”

Peg Deam, a culture bearer who works for the Suquamish Tribe Department of Community Development, agreed. “For our children, it’s another lesson in ‘You make your choices. How do you want to live?,’ then show them the consequences,” she told the North Kitsap Herald. “They have free will, they’re going to make their own choices. Right now, [marijuana] is hush-hush and under cover. When we bring it out … it becomes another stark reality for our kids to see and we can educate them on what they do not want in their lives.”

Squaxin Island Tribe Councilman Jim Peters told the Tacoma News Tribune that Squaxin is diversifying its economy, but is treating marijuana like alcohol or tobacco.

Courtesy Squaxin Island Tribe/ Squaxin’s Elevation

“We’re not going to advertise for people to get into it, but if you are into it, we have a product for you,” he said, adding that Squaxin educates its young people about the dangers of drug and alcohol use and operates a drug and alcohol treatment center.

Some Native nations are still saying “no” to marijuana legalization. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation is tucked away in a rural area of Kitsap County and it is a closed reservation; only S’Klallam citizens live there, and many think the sale and use of marijuana conflict with cultural teachings. “So much of our energy is put toward healthy lifestyles,” said Kelly Sullivan, executive director of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. “Some tribal members have a problem with us being in the alcohol and tobacco business at the casino. They think there should be more options for income than this type of thing. So, we’re not going to do something just because we can.”

The Yakama Nation, population 10,000, has banned the use of marijuana on its 1.2 million acre reservation in central Washington. And as far as the Nation is concerned, marijuana is illegal in its historical territory — 10.8 million acres of ancestral land it ceded to the United States in an 1855 treaty, but where the Yakama people maintain hunting, food-gathering and fishing rights.

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