Native Americans Turn To Cannabis Cultivation To Lift Their Tribes Out Of Poverty After Gambling Fails

Unfortunately, the tribes are hamstrung by laws that limit where and how they can sell their product.

This is a stock photo of cannabis being cultivated.
SUPEE PURATO / Shutterstock

Unfortunately, the tribes are hamstrung by laws that limit where and how they can sell their product.

Some Native American tribes are looking towards the emerging, semi-legal cannabis industry to lift their tribes out of poverty, after casinos failed to bring in the riches the tribes expected, the Chico Enterprise-Record is reporting. Unfortunately, a complicated network of state, federal, and tribal laws severely restricts how, when, and where the tribes can sell their products.

The Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel is one such tribe. Like so many Native American tribes, the Iipay had hoped a gambling operation on tribal land would be the magic bullet that lifted the nation out of poverty. They built a beautiful casino on a lake-front lot on sprawling, hilly land. Unfortunately, gambling was — and is — no longer the panacea it once was for Native American tribes, considering that multiple other options to legally gamble exist in California and most other states. The tribe abandoned its casino in 2014.

Now, the building is one of California’s thousands of legal pot shops, where adults can legally buy recreational cannabis without a doctor’s recommendation. Behind the building are multiple greenhouses, inside of which are tens of thousands of marijuana plants growing various strains.

But there’s a problem. Most legal California pot growers can sell their wares anywhere in the regulated cannabis market. A grower in San Diego, for example, could contract with a retailer in Crescent City — 875 miles away — to sell their wares. This would be perfectly legal under California law.

Not so for Native American tribes. Thanks to loopholes in California law, there is “no path,” as the newspaper writes, for Native American tribes to introduce their own cannabis, produced on sovereign tribal lands, into California’s regulated pot market.

Dave Vialpando, head of the Santa Ysabel Tribal Cannabis Regulatory Agency, says that it’s all a part of California’s pattern of excluding Native American tribes from its economy.

“It’s a long pattern in this state. There’s a history of marginalizing tribes. There’s a history of not wanting to engage with tribes.”

Efforts to close that loophole have been met with resistance from non-tribal cannabis growers, who fear that any attempt at fixing the problem could put them at a disadvantage. And indeed, three times the legislature has attempted to pass a bill allowing Native American tribes into the legal pot industry, off tribal land. Three times, those bills have failed.

However, the tribes now have an ally in Governor Gavin Newsom, who has long touted cannabis reform as a “tool for social justice.” A bill currently working its way through the California legislature would allow tribes to create their own marijuana regulatory system — and should it pass, Newsom is expected to sign it.