Las Vegas is bigger than life. Casinos that fashion themselves as Paris, New York or Bellagio. The hottest entertainers. And, millions of visitors.
It’s also home to the largest cannabis dispensary in the world -- owned by the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.
Fourteen tribes in Nevada negotiated a bill with the governor's office two years ago that allowed each to use marijuana on tribal lands. After that bill was signed into law, the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe took on the challenge of opening not just any cannabis dispensary, but a state of the art, Las Vegas style enterprise.
Benny Tso was the tribe’s chairman when the dispensary, Nuwu Marketplace, opened its doors and drive through window. Inside the 15,800 square foot building, customers are able to buy a wide array of cannabis products: flower, infused alcohol, smoking devices and even dog treats.
Tso is no longer the chairman, but still serves as a council member.
“When we first contemplated doing this venture with the tribe, we took a look at our current economic development,” said Tso. “We seen a pattern that wasn't too appealing to the tribe. So we had to start thinking of other ways to diversify the revenue for the tribe.”
The 14 tribes involved in the bill started the Nevada Tribal Cannabis Alliance to present draft legislation to the governor at the time, Brian Sandoval.
“I'm proud to say that the Las Vegas Paiute tribe, along with a few other select tribes got on a conference call,” Tso said. “The goal of that board was to make sure that all tribes in Nevada had a voice in cannabis.”
The bill authorizes the governor’s office to enter into agreements with tribal governments related to the use of marijuana.
The Nevada State Bill 375 was approved on June 2, 2017.
“It’s worked out well because of tribes coming together,” said Tso.
Since the approval of the bill, the alliance is no longer active. Now, the other members of the alliance are working on drafting compacts for their respective tribes.
However, attorney Sonia Martinez, said that Public Law 280 states make a significant difference between tribes and government relationships. PL 280 is a law that transfers jurisdiction from the federal government to the state.
Martinez is a licensed attorney in two states: one is a PL 280 state, the other is not. She is also licensed to practice in several tribal jurisdictions.
“Nevada is a great program because those tribes are used to working with the state, not the federal government,” she said.
The medicinal and recreational usage of cannabis is restricted depending on the state. Nevada and 10 other states have allowed recreational use; 33 other states only allow medicinal marijuana.
In PL 280 states, tribes can make compacts with the state. The states that fall under this law are California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Alaska. But these five states are subject to federal oversight and highly regulated, said Martinez.
Another issue is banking.
“No bank can take money from this industry because it’s not legal at the federal level,” said Martinez. “Even credit unions that do, they are likely to red flag accounts and charge a fee.”
In terms of banking, there is an act that is close to a vote at the federal level. The Safe Banking Act (H.R. 1595) ensures financial service protections for cannabis related businesses and it has provisions for tribes. There are other acts that support the cannabis industry, but Martinez believes the Safe Banking Act would be the most effective for tribes.
Currently, the Las Vegas Tribe is working to open an account with a credit union because it’s easier and safer to conduct business, said the tribe’s attorney. This is essential because the tribe’s compact allows expansion of its cannabis enterprise.
“We have a lot of things coming up, within the next six to nine months,” said Tso. “We're contemplating an entertainment lounge … and we just opened up deliveries (a marjiuana delivery service) with a partner.”
Tso also emphasized that tribes need to be cautions when venturing down the legislative path.
“Tribes, do your research, have a vetting process; make sure that who you’re working with is wanting to actually do the work with you guys,” said Tso. “You know, wanting to do the work and not looking out for their own best interests.”
Tsanavi Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. She is a Chips Quinn Fellow. Email: Tsanavi@IndianCountryToday.com