Feds Give Tribes Green Light to Grow and Sell Marijuana on Tribal Lands
By Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune
A U.S. Department of Justice memorandum released last week opens the window for federally recognized tribes to grow and sell marijuana on tribal lands, raising a long debated issue among local tribes that work to suppress large-scale grows because of environmental damage and criminal activity.
News headlines immediately following the announcement indicated that local tribes would not waver in their strong stance against marijuana cultivation on tribal lands. But not all tribal members share this opinion.
The memorandum prompted Hoopa Valley tribal member and former tribal chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall, Sr., to file a petition to repeal the Hoopa tribe’s law that prohibits marijuana cultivation on the reservation.
“I was disappointed in the knee jerk responses from the Hoopa and Yurok leadership without giving a second thought to the economic opportunity that the tribes have been presented with,” Marshall wrote in an opinion piece published in the December 16, 2014 issue of the Two Rivers Tribune (see page 3).
Other community members shared their opinions in social media discussions. Kimmerz Davis gave the Two Rivers Tribune permission to use a comment she posted on Facebook?.
Davis, a trained botanist, manages the Hoopa Tribe’s forest nursery, where a variety of trees are nurtured from seed and used to replenish the forest in succession after timber harvests. She also spearheads small-scale agricultural projects on the reservation to improve access to organically grown foods.
“A drug is a drug regardless of how people try to say it’s not, and this drug causes just as much devastation to our environment since not one grower nowadays grows weed organically,” Davis said. “The plant requires way too many nutrients to grow the big potent colas people like to smoke. You may think it doesn’t cause harm to the environment, but it does. Adding more nutrients to the soil causes chaos for all other organisms that live in the area and more often than not kills them. I’m not cool with that.”
Both the Hoopa and Yurok Tribes suffer the impacts of large-scale grows that range from 3,000-20,000 plants. Such grows, believed to be Mexican and Asian cartel operations, require large water diversions and excessive use of fertilizers and chemicals including some that are illegal in the U.S.
Research conducted by the Hoopa Tribe’s Forestry Department is instrumental in showing that rodenticides used at illegal grow sites are responsible for killing spotted owls and Pacific Fishers, a species recently proposed for the Endangered Species list. Furthermore, fertilizer runoff into rivers and tributaries is believed to contribute to algal blooms that suffocate the Trinity River in late summer and fall.
But not all grows are irresponsibly large and toxic. Some community members believe legalization will improve regulatory efforts, drive the cartel market down and out, and provide a source of revenue to aid in community development and prevention.
Organizations are cropping up throughout the state to support legalization for recreational use on the 2016 ballot:
California Cannabis Voice (CCV) not only supports legalization, but is leading a Humboldt County-wide effort to draft a regulatory ordinance in anticipation of state-wide legalization.
“Lawful and responsibly regulated cannabis cultivation presents a tremendous opportunity to preserve Humboldt County’s rural character, protect agriculture, timber production, and open space as primary land uses in the county, and provide lawful residents and property owners who so choose the ability to prosper as small and medium-scale cannabis farmers,” an excerpt of CCV’s draft county ordinance states.
CCV believes a community-driven effort to draft regulations specific to the county will provide a legal framework for clear rules and regulations that reward voluntary compliance and provide effective and efficient enforcement mechanisms to identify and stop irresponsible growers culpable for most of the violent crimes, trespass grows, illegal water diversions, pollution and other environmental harm associated with cannabis cultivation.
Although an ordinance specific to the county would have no bearing on reservation lands, local tribal leaders have taken notice that marijuana prohibition is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten supports a vote by the tribal membership if that’s the route the membership chooses to take. She said she’s neither for nor against marijuana; her job is to uphold tribal law.
“The council hasn’t yet had the opportunity to dialogue on the issue,” Vigil-Masten said.
Although the Hoopa Tribe has taken a hard line against marijuana cultivation, Vigil-Masten said she also sees the benefits.
“I’ve known people who were healed from cancer with the help of marijuana. It’s proven to help cure glaucoma, anxiety, anorexia, and a variety of ailments,” Vigil-Masten said. “I could argue both sides.”
She said the topic came up during a general membership meeting held last July, when a tribal member suggested the tribe pursue medical marijuana cultivation as an economic development venture. Representatives from the Hoopa Tribe met with Round Valley leaders, who had legalized cultivation for individual medicinal purposes. She said Round Valley is willing to share the language of their ordinance with the Hoopa Tribe.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Title 34 was approved in 1999 after the tribe encountered challenges with the state’s then-fresh 215 law.
“The open and notorious cultivation of marijuana within the exterior boundaries of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation under the guise of permissive use in light of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 is unacceptable and endangers the general welfare, health, and safety of residents of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation,” the ordinance states.
Vigil-Masten said the ordinance was also developed as a way to reaffirm compliance with federal grant requirements to provide a drug-free work environment for all employees of the tribe. She added that since she has been the chairperson, not one person has been convicted of marijuana cultivation.
The tribe, the largest employer in the Hoopa area, continues to prohibit employees to work if they test positive for THC, even if they have a valid prescription from their doctor.
If certified by the tribe’s election board, and enough valid signatures are obtained, Marshall’s initiative could allow tribal voters to strike Title 34 from tribal law, opening the door for individuals to grow legally.
The petition is the second filed with the Hoopa Tribe’s elections office to revoke Title 34 in the past four years. The first, filed by Arthur Jones, failed in 2010 after the requisite number of signatures was not collected.
Marshall’s petition will undergo a series of formalities that include legal review and Election Board certification before a 30-day clock begins to tick. During those 30 days, Marshall must collect the requisite number of signatures (one-third of the number of registered voters who voted in the most recent election) before the proposal makes it onto a special election ballot.
The petition reads: “We the undersigned members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and citizens of the Hoopa Nation, hereby petition the Election Board to conduct a referendum election to repeal Title 34, the Marijuana Cultivation Suppression Ordinance, in its entirety.”
The U.S. Justice Department memorandum will be implemented on a case-by-case basis according to Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota and the chairman of the Attorney General’s Subcommittee on Native American Issues. And the federal government will continue to legally support those tribes that wish to ban marijuana, even in states that now permit its sale.