Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

Tribal cannabis. Two of the most scary words, apparently, for the federal government. Pueblo cannabis. Two words no one in N.M. wants to really get down and talk about. Is it because this may hold the largest Indigenous power play, economically speaking, since Indian gaming for tribes locally and nationally?

New Mexico’s pueblos have been on the fence about discussing this issue publicly. The Pueblo of Acoma in 2017 announced an agreement with Bright Green Group. What was, at the time, scheduled to be the largest operation of its kind in the west fell apart due to many regulatory hurdles, both state and federal. 

Those last words above—regulatory hurdles, state and federal—are the biggest opponents tribes across America face if they want to exercise their sovereignty. To be able to make a decision that affects a community’s health, wealth and safety should not be under the scrutiny of the federal government. As Picuris Governor Craig Quanchello stated in an interview with The Paper., “That’s what we said: We’re exercising our sovereignty. We went through our community and said, OK, this is what’s going on. This is what we want to do. How does the community feel about cannabis from the medical side? Because in the beginning [it was], and it still is, the holistic approach. We wanted to provide an alternate medicine for our community people, and we wanted options. We heard there’s a lot of good stories. This holistic approach, that’s what we wanted to do. What were our options? We wanted to have an affordable medicine.”

In 2015 the tribe approved a medical marijuana ordinance. “So that’s where we went. We changed our ordinances. We created our ordinances. At the time the rule was that if you mirror the state or a legal state, you would be OK. So we basically mirrored the state, but we added PTSD and opioid dependence,” stated the governor.

All of this work was completely transparent, with the tribe even seeking out guidance from the state and feds. But they were completely shut out of the conversation during the Susana Martinez administration. That was a dark era for local tribes, as Susana often did not meet with tribal officials directly, nor did she uphold the government-to-government agreement in place.

What is crazy is that Picuris succeeded in getting a 2020 USDA plan for hemp production approved! They were one of only six tribal nations to receive this. But just because you have the right papers doesn’t mean anything to the federal government. And Picuris stood by calmly as the feds came in and “raided” their “massive” 36-plant operation. A joke. To use such resources to shut down what was effectively a science experiment by the tribe to see if this was something they could handle. This was not some clandestine grow up high in the mountains. The governor even provided directions to the plot of land for federal agents. So what was the reasoning? The U.S. attorney for the area says that hemp is a Schedule 1 drug and illegal in all forms on federal Indian land.

That issue of federal jurisdiction is truly the sticking point. And one that is unclear across the nation. The U.S. attorney overseeing N.M. can do this to a small tribe like Picuris. Yet, a different U.S. attorney overseeing, say, Nevada might have a different opinion. Is this because of Nevada being a PL280 State? Public Law 280 transfers mandatory civil and criminal jurisdiction of offenses committed by or against Indians in Indian Country to these state authorities. Meaning the state has legal jurisdiction in reference to the tribe in their area, taking the federal law out of the mechanism. 

The big picture. In passing, with tribal business folks, you hear of these three elements discussed when talking about medical marijuana and tribes. Just as we tend to have the three sisters: corn, squash and beans. The Native cannabis industry has its own three characters that need each other to survive. The three buds of Native medical marijuana. Number one is parity. The ability to enter this industry like anyone else. Tribal people have the same right to be in the cannabis business as other New Mexicans. Number three is the ability to have intertribal commerce. These are the common goals to which tribes should be looking to come together and to work toward. 

In some respects maybe it is so hard a hurdle because we have the industry scared. Taxes. Who knows? But the pueblos might have the ability to wave state taxes on marijuana. This provides an automatic advantage. Also tribes, in many cases, would not need to seek out and should not seek out outside investors. They have the capital often to front even a small venture. We could even have tribes fund, train and set up other tribes in this burgeoning industry. 

Imagine Picuris gaining all this legal and scientific knowledge. Imagine them using that as an economic spur to help get other tribes into the business. Ultimately, medical marijuana could be bigger than Indian gaming in terms of revenue. So with that will come the inevitable federal guidance. Will we one day see an Indian Marijuana Regulatory Act, just like gaming? The same situation occurred there. Tribes got out in front of the curve, and the federal government decided they needed to put their foot down.

Picuris is a small pueblo, located in northern New Mexico, nestled in the mountains far from big city life. But they are playing a game with the biggest dogs in the room, a game that holds in its result the precedent that many will follow.

As Governor Quanchello explains: “I understand that it’s not for everybody. I understand that not everybody is into this form of medicine, but there are people that need it. And people need to do it safely. It’s another option. Another mechanism that is natural, right? Everybody, we all have to be professional about it, you know. This is something positive that that can be for all of New Mexico. We need to dominate the industry. It’s our land. If not? The money’s going to go out of state, and it’s not going to benefit all the New Mexicans. I think that’s it. We just have to push forward, and we have those same rights.  And right now, I feel like Picuris is being discriminated against because of the federal side.” 

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Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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