The Tricky Relationship Between Marijuana and American Indians

Winona LaDuke December 19, 2015

Last dance with Mary Jane? (

You have an unmo­ti­vat­ed per­son and you become more unmo­ti­vat­ed on cannabis. I am afraid that the self esteem of our peo­ple is not going to han­dle legal­iz­ing it well.”

—Kevin Shore, White Earth trib­al mem­ber, Gulf War Vet­er­an using VHA pre­scribed med­ical mar­i­jua­na for his chron­ic condition.

I think that decrim­i­nal­iz­ing recre­ation­al use would ben­e­fit our peo­ple great­ly since so many of us use it and many have been incar­cer­at­ed for pos­sess­ing it.”

—Mar­tin Rein­hardt, Pro­fes­sor of Native Amer­i­can Stud­ies at North­ern Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty, Mar­quette, Michigan.

It’s time to recon­sid­er the reg­u­la­tion of mar­i­jua­na and hemp on reser­va­tions. One year ago in Octo­ber, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice released a mem­o­ran­dum stat­ing that fed­er­al author­i­ties would no longer pros­e­cute for mar­i­jua­na on trib­al land — even when it is ille­gal in the sur­round­ing state. In that memo Jus­tice Depart­ment Direc­tor Mon­ty Wilkin­son wrote that in the event that sov­er­eign Indi­an Nations seek to legal­ize the cul­ti­va­tion or use of mar­i­jua­na in Indi­an Coun­try,” Unit­ed States Attor­neys will essen­tial­ly treat its legal­iza­tion in the same way that the depart­ment does in states like Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton, where the drug is legal, as long as reser­va­tions meet the same guidelines. 

Over the last 12 months, tribes from Cal­i­for­nia to New York have legal­ized the drug.

The Pinoleville Pomo tribe, which is locat­ed in Men­do­ci­no Coun­ty in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, one of the largest mar­i­jua­na grow­ing coun­ties in the coun­try, began the first ever trib­al mar­i­jua­na grow oper­a­tion. But in Sep­tem­ber, Men­do­ci­no Coun­ty sheriff’s deputies raid­ed the reser­va­tion, destroy­ing near­ly all 400 of the tribe’s plants. Accord­ing to the sheriff’s depart­ment, the tribe was in vio­la­tion of Men­do­ci­no County’s lim­it of 25 plants per lot. But trib­al lead­ers claim, The sher­iff over­stepped his authority.”

In a sep­a­rate case, the Menom­i­nee Nation in Wis­con­sin legal­ized the grow­ing of indus­tri­al hemp, under pro­vi­sions of the 2014 Farm Bill. The low THC, non-psy­chotrop­ic hemp plot was intend­ed to be grown for research pur­pos­es. Act­ing U.S. Attor­ney Gre­go­ry Haanstad told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press that agents exe­cut­ed fed­er­al search war­rants on a large unlaw­ful mar­i­jua­na grow oper­a­tion on trib­al land and seized what agents described as approx­i­mate­ly 30,000 plants weight­ing a total of sev­er­al thou­sand pounds.” Some of the basis for this raid was that non-Menom­i­nee indi­vid­u­als were involved in the oper­a­tion. Menom­i­nee Chair­man Gary Besaw has stat­ed the tribe will con­tin­ue to work on the res­o­lu­tion to this issue.

Accord­ing to News from Indi­an Coun­try, the Oma­ha tribe of Nebras­ka has vot­ed to look into get­ting into the mar­i­jua­na busi­ness­es and the Seneca Nation of New York has approved a med­ical mar­i­jua­na mea­sure.

Lance Mor­gan (Win­neba­go), a trib­al law expert in Nebras­ka, has stat­ed that the Jus­tice depart­ment memo on the mar­i­jua­na and hemp legal­iza­tion does not actu­al­ly allow tribes to legal­ize mar­i­jua­na. Rather it allows them to work with U.S. attor­neys. And Mor­gan says U.S. attor­neys in many states have been unwill­ing to let tribes move forward.

The fact is that legal­iza­tion on Amer­i­can Indi­an reser­va­tions has become a sticky issue. The mem­o­ran­dum leaves a lot of grey area, espe­cial­ly in the 27 states which have not yet legal­ized mar­i­jua­na in some form. Attor­ney Gen­er­al Cole, for instance, states that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice will retain the right to pros­e­cute indi­vid­u­als who engage in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mar­i­jua­na to minors, and where rev­enue is going to crim­i­nal enter­pris­es, dri­ving under the influ­ence or diver­sion to a state where it is not legal.

While some tribes are look­ing to this as a high­ly lucra­tive busi­ness, oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing the poten­tial chal­lenges of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pot industry.

The eco­nom­ics of pot

I am told that 40 per­cent of my White Earth tribe smokes the herb. The fact is we’re spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars annu­al­ly import­ing mar­i­jua­na from large­ly unsa­vory char­ac­ters onto the reser­va­tion at a great loss to our trib­al econ­o­my. I haven’t done com­plete stud­ies, but, con­ser­v­a­tive­ly, $60,000 a week is drain­ing from the pock­ets of my fel­low tribe mem­bers into the hands of out­side deal­ers, most oper­at­ing in the Twin Cities. With a lit­tle math, it looks like around $3 mil­lion annu­al­ly is leav­ing the reser­va­tion for mar­i­jua­na pur­chas­es. That is com­ing out of trib­al pock­ets — pock­ets in some of the poor­est coun­ties in the state. That is part of our chal­lenge. Could tribes curb that eco­nom­ic drain with a local mar­i­jua­na economy?

Trib­al com­mu­ni­ties would be unable, under the present reg­u­la­to­ry scheme, to sell mar­i­jua­na off reser­va­tion unless the state they find them­selves in a state that has legal­ized mar­i­jua­na. This is the case of the Pineoville Pomo in Cal­i­for­nia, and tribes in states with med­ical or recre­ation­al use. When the state of Min­neso­ta held its infor­ma­tion­al meet­ing on a new med­ical mar­i­jua­na pol­i­cy, reg­u­la­to­ry offi­cials stat­ed that trib­al sov­er­eign­ty would dic­tate grow­ing in that state, but there’s been no word on dis­tri­b­u­tion or sales off reser­va­tion. The ques­tion of a local trib­al econ­o­my in mar­i­jua­na, how­ev­er, is worth some consideration.

Drug wars

Mar­i­jua­na has account­ed for near­ly half of all total drug arrests in the Unit­ed States for the past 20 years, accord­ing to the FBI’s crime statistics.

Wash­ing­ton state data indi­cates that in 2010, arrests were three times that of two decades before. The major­i­ty of those arrest­ed were white, but Natives were arrest­ed at a rate of l.6 times high­er than that of whites. The pos­ses­sion arrests, accord­ing to a study, cost Wash­ing­ton State (where recre­ation­al use is now legal) about $200 mil­lion between 2000 and 2010. That’s expensive.

A mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion arrest cre­ates a per­ma­nent crim­i­nal record eas­i­ly found on the Inter­net by employ­ers, land­lords, schools, cred­it agen­cies, licens­ing boards, and banks.

Since 2007, around 80,000 peo­ple have lost their lives as a result of the fight­ing between drug car­tels and Mexico’s armed forces, accord­ing to Reuters. And the Depart­ment of Jus­tice reports that a large por­tion of the U.S. ille­gal drug mar­ket is con­trolled direct­ly by Mex­i­can cartels.

In 2012, a study by the Mex­i­can Com­pet­i­tive­ness Insti­tute found that U.S. state legal­iza­tion would cut into car­tel busi­ness and take over about 30 per­cent of their mar­ket. Retired DEA offi­cer Ter­ry Nel­son told Vice that legal­iza­tion has affect­ed drug traf­fick­ing and car­tels. The car­tels are crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions that were mak­ing as much as 35 – 40 per­cent of their income from mar­i­jua­na,” says Nel­son. They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the U.S. now.”

Minnesota’s Native Mob gang has his­tor­i­cal­ly been involved in mar­i­jua­na, as well as a host of oth­er drugs and weapons. While pros­e­cu­tions land­ed many lead­ers of the Mob behind bars in recent years, it is not clear in a state like Min­neso­ta what the effect of legal­iza­tion would be on Native gang activ­i­ty, but it is worth considering.

Addic­tions and more addic­tions on reservations

When my moth­er met her sec­ond hus­band (my step­fa­ther), he used to smoke it occa­sion­al­ly. Then he would watch some­thing sil­ly on TV and fall asleep. She didn’t want him to get caught with it, so she insist­ed he only drink. This was a real­ly bad idea, since [alco­hol] didn’t relieve his stress and made him angri­er and more vio­lent. He would start look­ing for some­thing to focus his anger on as he got drunk, which would almost always be one of his stepchil­dren. While drunk, he lost all sense of how hard or long he would beat us. When he was high, I don’t think he ever hit us at all. The law as it stands has prob­a­bly put many chil­dren and spous­es in this posi­tion.” – Anony­mous interview

That’s prob­a­bly a snap­shot of a lot of hous­es. I sur­veyed numer­ous peo­ple on the ques­tion of addic­tions and the impact of legal­iza­tion and got many opin­ions. What we know is that our trib­al com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer from epi­demics of addic­tions. We alter our con­scious­ness for many rea­sons — the pain of his­toric trau­ma, bore­dom, lack of cul­tur­al and com­mu­ni­ty strength, and because we like it. The root caus­es of our dri­ve need to be changed, and that will take long-term work and heal­ing. We need solu­tions to our prob­lems, and we all know that drink­ing a six-pack or smok­ing a bowl is not going to make life bet­ter, though it might help you for­get for a few hours.

Frankly, it’s eas­i­er to get pre­scrip­tion drugs on the reser­va­tion and snort them up your nose than prob­a­bly any­where else in the coun­try. Sam Moose, Com­mis­sion­er of Health and Human Ser­vices for the Mille Lacs Indi­an Reser­va­tion in Min­neso­ta talks about the epi­dem­ic which is claim­ing new vic­tims on his reser­va­tion: babies born addict­ed to opi­ates, both pre­scrip­tion painkillers and ille­gal drugs like hero­in. Accord­ing to Moose, the reser­va­tion is one of the hard­est hit com­mu­ni­ties in Min­neso­ta. Twen­ty-eight per­cent of babies with Neona­tal Absti­nence Syn­drome (NAS) in Min­neso­ta are born to Native Amer­i­cans, even though Native Amer­i­cans make up only about 2 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion. In oth­er words, Amer­i­can Indi­an new­borns are 8.7 times more like­ly than white babies to be born with NAS. Add to that Fetal Alco­hol Syn­drome Dis­or­der (FASD), and we’ve got a pret­ty dire sit­u­a­tion for the next gen­er­a­tion. What would mar­i­jua­na do to this?

As a researcher of FASD, and a now doc­tor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy. … I tru­ly believe, on a per­son­al, com­mu­ni­ty and soci­etal lev­el that legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na will decrease rates of FASD expres­sion with­in our com­mu­ni­ties,” Melis­sa Goracke, a White Earth doc­tor tells me. Access to mar­i­jua­na will decrease women’s use of alco­hol dur­ing preg­nan­cy, which is the most vio­lent ter­ato­gen to brain devel­op­ment, which lasts a life­time. It’s a start and it’s sim­plis­tic, but it’s something.”

That’s an inter­est­ing thought, but many peo­ple remain opposed to trans­fer­ring addic­tions.” At the same time, from my lim­it­ed study, mar­i­jua­na use is pret­ty preva­lent on the reservations.

The high­est risk for mar­i­jua­na: The teenage boy

It is extreme­ly rare to see kids who are chron­i­cal­ly using pot doing well in school,” Dr. Brett Nien­aber, a fam­i­ly and emer­gency ward physi­cian near Brain­erd, Min­neso­ta, tells me. It might have to do with this neu­ro­trans­mit­ter called dopamine. Dopamine is the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter, which is asso­ci­at­ed with the rewards cen­ter of your brain. If you do some­thing well, like get an A, or win a race, you get a good feel­ing and that stim­u­lates the reward sys­tem. Mar­i­jua­na use real­ly stamps out the dopamine.”

A new med­ical study quan­ti­fies this. This study sug­gests that even light to mod­er­ate recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na use can cause changes in brain anato­my,” says Carl Lupi­ca, of the Nation­al Insti­tute on Drug Abuse. These obser­va­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing because pre­vi­ous stud­ies have focused pri­mar­i­ly on the brains of heavy mar­i­jua­na smok­ers, and have large­ly ignored the brains of casu­al users.”

A team of sci­en­tists com­pared the size, shape, and den­si­ty of the nucle­us accum­bens and the amyg­dala —brain regions that plays a cen­tral role in emo­tion and plea­sure — in 20 mar­i­jua­na users and 20 non-users. Each mar­i­jua­na user was asked to esti­mate their drug con­sump­tion over a three-month peri­od, includ­ing the num­ber of days they smoked and the amount of the drug con­sumed each day. The sci­en­tists found that the more the mar­i­jua­na users report­ed con­sum­ing, the greater the abnor­mal­i­ties in the nucle­us accum­bens and amyg­dala. The shape and den­si­ty of both of these regions also dif­fered between mar­i­jua­na users and non-users.

Mar­i­jua­na can also cause an ear­ly onset of schiz­o­phre­nia in young men, who are genet­i­cal­ly pre-dis­posed. If nor­mal­ly you would have got­ten [schiz­o­phre­nia] at 25,” Dr. Nien­aber says, you will more like­ly get your first psy­chot­ic break at 13, which is a prob­lem because the longer you have it the more debil­i­tat­ing it is. The prob­lem is that schiz­o­phren­ics and peo­ple who are pre­dis­posed to it are real­ly drawn to drug abuse.”

Men­tal health ben­e­fits of marijuana

There’s clear evi­dence of the ben­e­fits of mar­i­jua­na in the treat­ment and pain relief of glau­co­ma, fibromyal­gia, epilep­sy, rheuma­toid arthri­tis, seizures, PTSD (remem­ber we Indi­ans have the high­est per capi­ta num­ber of liv­ing vet­er­ans of any com­mu­ni­ty) and a host of oth­er med­ical con­di­tions. My friend Kevin Shore suf­fers from Gulf War Syn­drome, and he is strug­gling with a host of seri­ous med­ical conditions.

Actu­al­ly they call it rheuma­toid vari­ant dis­ease at the Vet­er­ans Health Admin­is­tra­tion (VHA), because, like in Viet­nam, they don’t want to call it an Agent Orange syn­drome,” Kevin says. They tried putting me on mor­phine, oxy­codone, all of that didn’t work well. I found that cannabis was the least harm­ful to my body as the side effects go.”

Because Kevin is being treat­ed by the VHA, he can­not smoke mar­i­jua­na, or take it in any form. So they pro­vide him with dram­nol, a syn­thet­ic form of mar­i­jua­na. While med­ical stud­ies indi­cate that mar­i­jua­na is help­ful in many cas­es, it is clear­ly not a panacea for all illnesses.

Mar­i­jua­na is a med­i­cine. Mar­i­jua­na does not solve all prob­lems. It does not cure every­thing. It is a plant and it is a med­i­cine. As much as our com­mu­ni­ty deals with drug abuse, every­one agrees there is a need to restore our rela­tion­ship to our plant rel­a­tives in a respect­ful man­ner. Indige­nous peo­ples know plants have spir­it and pow­er that need to be addressed with reverence.

Winona LaDuke is Anishi­naabe, a writer, an econ­o­mist and a hemp farmer, work­ing on a book about the Eighth Fire and the Green New Deal. She is ready for the Green Path, and would pre­fer not to spend her gold­en years clean­ing up the mess­es of enti­tled white men.LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reser­va­tion in north­ern Min­neso­ta, where she found­ed the White Earth Land Recov­ery Project. She is pro­gram direc­tor of Hon­or the Earth and a two-time vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with Ralph Nad­er on the Green Par­ty ticket.
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