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The cannabis boom hasn’t reached much of Indian Country. One tribe blames government discrimination

 Wō Poví Cannabis, a dispensary within the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico, open in July 2022 to 500 visitors on opening day.
Emma Gibson, Mountain West News Bureau
Wō Poví Cannabis, a dispensary within the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico, open in July 2022 to 500 visitors on opening day.

On the day of its grand opening in early July, Wō Poví Cannabis in the Pueblo of Pojoaque, N.M., opened its doors to nearly 500 customers and visitors throughout the day.

New Mexico legalized the sale of recreational cannabis this spring, and Wō Poví, which means "medicine flower" in the Tewa language, is the rare tribal cannabis businesses in the state, which is home to almost two dozen pueblos and tribal nations.

The customers commented on how it’s “a step ahead for the pueblo” and “historic.” One clerk called the store's opening "a huge step towards our sovereignty.”

But even as recreational cannabis businesses flourish in New Mexico – sales topped $39 million in September – Wō Poví operates in a legal gray area. Federal deference to states that have legalized medical and recreational cannabis doesn't always occur on tribal lands, and a lack of federal guidance on the subject means tribal dispensaries and grow facilities can't operate with the same certainty the industry enjoys elsewhere.

“This day, right now, we’re being discriminated against,” said Gov. Craig Quanchello of the Pueblo of Picuris, a pueblo whose attempt to enter the industry five years ago was foiled by these legal ambiguities, even though cannabis is legal under Picuris law.

 Cannabis flower in Wō Poví Cannabis, Pubelo of Pojoaque, N.M.
Emma Gibson, Mountain West News Bureau
Cannabis flower in Wō Poví Cannabis, Pubelo of Pojoaque, N.M.

“And also now that the state is a recreational state – I mean, we are still considered New Mexicans – but being a New Mexican living in Picuris, you’re not allowed to engage in that.”

New Mexico passed the first medical marijuana law in the nation. That was in 1978. It marked the beginning of states diverging from federal cannabis laws, and while decades of tensions and legal uncertainties have lessened in recent years in states that have legalized cannabis, the uncertainties persist in Indian Country. That’s especially true in the Mountain West, where about 80 tribes are essentially locked out of an industry projected to exceed $57 billion in sales by 2030, according to New Frontier Data.

The industry's uneven growth has largely been dictated by changing federal policies in response to pressure from states. One of the big shifts came in 2013, when, under the Obama administration, a Justice Department memo said it would deprioritize enforcement of federal cannabis prohibition in states that legalized and regulated it. In 2014, another memo, known as the Wilkinson Memo, essentially extended that guidance to tribal lands. In 2018, the Trump administration reversed those policies in announcing “a return to the rule of law.”

It was after the Wilkinson Memo that the Pueblo of Picuris ventured into medical cannabis. But still, in 2017, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs raided Picuris and pulled the tribe's approximately 30 plants. The feds didn't prosecute but Picuris lost its investment.

And just last year, Richard Hughes, one of Picuris’s lawyers, says the BIA raided an individual Picuris tribal member who had nine cannabis plants and a New Mexico medical cannabis card.

Hughes says the tribe wrote to BIA's agent in charge of the regional law enforcement office and asked if they could work something out.

“Her response was, ‘Our agents are not trained to ignore violations of federal law in Indian Country,’ which is kind of laughable, frankly, because time after time serious crimes that occur in Indian Country are simply disregarded by those agents,” he said.

 A resident of Picuris Pueblo walks inside the Tribe’s medical cannabis grow house. Federal agents raided the greenhouse in 2017.
Shaun Griswold
Source NM
A resident of Picuris Pueblo walks inside the Tribe’s medical cannabis grow house. Federal agents raided the greenhouse in 2017.

“They obviously have some special place in their hearts and souls for cannabis violations,” he added.

BIA did not respond to an interview request for this story and the U.S. attorney for New Mexico had no comment.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, another tribe has had an entirely different experience in navigating state and federal cannabis laws.

The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s cannabis business is called NuWu – “the people” in Southern Paiute.

Their two dispensaries near Las Vegas see as many as 4,000 customers a day with, reportedly, $6 million a month in sales.

Chairwoman Deryn Pete says the tribe has a great working relationship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

“I feel like the tribe’s sovereignty has been strengthened in the process,” she said. “That is, the tribe has proven over and over and it's in its ability to govern itself and act as a responsible governmental neighbor to other sovereigns.”

She says the tribe is planning a large growing operation – and isn’t worried about the feds pushing back. A Nevada law passed in 2017 lets tribes open their own cannabis stores.

New Mexico is trying to give state-level protections to some of its pueblos, too.

Though federal laws still apply on tribal lands, in May the governor announced the signing of two intergovernmental agreements with the pueblos of Pojoaque and Picuris to ease their entry into the recreational cannabis industry.

It could be an economic boon to Picuris, which is a non-gaming tribe.

Gov. Quanchello hopes the agreement will keep the BIA out of the Picuris pueblo’s cannabis business similar to the feds' hands-off approach with the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.

“I think the most meaningful thing about the IGA from our point of view is just for New Mexico to recognize our sovereignty and allow us to exercise our sovereignty,” he said.

As Wō Poví Cannabis in Pueblo of Pojoaque and NuWu continue to grow, lawmakers around the country are pushing the federal government to protect cannabis operations in Indian Country. Just last week, two Republican members of Congress wrote to President Joe Biden urging him to use administrative action to again deprioritize the enforcement of federal cannabis laws in tribal lands.

They referenced the raid of the Picuris tribal member.

“Enforcing federal cannabis laws on tribal land, especially in cases where the tribe and the state have legalized cannabis use, is wrong and it needs to stop. Not only is it not right, but it is discriminatory,” they wrote in the letter. “These misguided enforcement actions have sent a chill through Indian Country – tribes are unsure if the federal government will continue to enforce and prioritize federal cannabis laws only on reservations.”

The lawmakers wrote the letter days after President Biden issued an executive order pardoning thousands of people with federal convictions of simple marijuana possession. He's also asking federal agencies to review marijuana’s classification as one of the most dangerous drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden said.

Editor's note: KUNR-based Mountain West News Bureau reporter Kaleb Roedel contributed to this story.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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