ROBESON COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA – Indigenous leaders are treading carefully around a new U.S. Justice Department memorandum instructing all US Attorney offices to allow the growing and selling of marijuana inside all Native American reserves that wish to do so.
Dated October 28, 2014, the memorandum states that each district attorney should consult with indigenous governments to ensure that a set of eight criteria are met. These requirements include not selling to minors or making it available to cartels.
Where the attorneys feel enforcement is not strict enough, they may “focus enforcement efforts based on that district-specific assessment,” reads the statement.
This means that nations that participate can do so despite any state laws prohibiting marijuana, but federal laws will still apply. This will leave the door open for federal prosecutors to prosecute marijuana felonies on tribal lands.
“But we should stay… far away from euro-colonial control,” said Chief Robert Chavis of the Skarure Katenuaka nation, or Tuscarora, as is now more commonly known, of North Carolina. “This is a window of opportunity… to decrease their power and say we’re going to take control, do it our way and honour the Two Row Wampum.”
For this, he proposed some type of community regulatory body that wholly involves tribal or community leaders. “Not FBI, not DEA, not any US-euro-colonial type of government control,” he said.
The Skarure Katenuaka, also known as “hemp gatherers,” have used marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin for more than 1,500 years. They’ve produced everything from shirts and baskets to rope and building blocks known as hemp-crete. Some councillors have expressed concern about getting into the marijuana business, said Chavis. But he believes they can focus on hemp and medicinal uses without catering to those who just want to get high.
“We’re leaning away from recreational use and using it for more traditional (purposes),” he said.
After natives introduced US and Canadian farmers to it, hemp became a cash-cow. More than 25,000 products were manufactured with it for nearly two decades during the 1940s and 1950s. In a 1938 Popular Mechanics article titled “New Billion-Dollar Crop,” the authors described it as the “new cash-crop (that)…will displace imports of raw materials and manufactured products.” Of course, by this time, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 required all hemp growers to secure a licence, and by 1970, hemp was criminalized and included in the Controlled Substance Act.
Though this memorandum doesn’t mention hemp, Chavis said he believes it’s a “good…way of making economic development.” It also is an opportunity to assert their sovereignty, particularly in the face of the apparent double-standard applied to tobacco.
“Now we have some ammunition to fire back at them,” he said. “If marijuana is legal now in native lands, what’s the problem with selling tobacco in native lands and transporting it from native land to native land? Not all nations had hemp, but tobacco was traditional through a wide range of our people.”
It was similar thinking that led Alex White Plume and his family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to grow 300 acres of hemp in the year 2000. This activity led to Drug Enforcement Agency raids throughout the years and, finally, a life-time ban from cultivating the crop for White Plume. In an article published on Dec. 18 in Indian Country Media Network, he expressed optimism for the memorandum. However, others like Melissa Jacobs, founder of Regional Action Group for the Environment (R.A.G.E.), are filled with questions — suspicious and wary of the real intentions behind it all.
“In a just world, we would already be cultivating and using our sacred plants,” she said. “Is this truly a way to help our nations out of poverty or is it just another way for the U.S. to make more money by demanding tax off of that? Will they be opening the door so they have more control in our lands?”
Jacobs, a Blackfoot involved in anti-mining and fracking protests for over 50 years, said she worries that this could ease the community’s access to harmful substances, especially at a time when “there’s so many drug problems and so much loss of hope in (the) nations.”
“So I worry about them being exposed to having heavy drug trade,” she said.
Chief Neil Patterson Sr., from the Tuscorora nation, called the initiative “despicable,” though he clarified he was speaking personally and not for the council.
“I think it’s downright despicable that any government would impose something onto another government,” he said, adding he didn’t know of any direct consultation with indigenous leaders before announcing the changes.
“We’re trying to stop this stuff…It’s not good for people to do this. Are we bad enough (economically) that we gotta raise this dope? It seems a little strange that they would do that.”
Marijuana laws have been relaxed across the U.S. and, to a certain extent, Canada, in the last few years. The states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and District of Columbia have led the way in terms of legalizing it. While the indigenous community expresses no interest in using it recreationally, some in the non-native community are also hopeful the move will help.
A Dec. 11 article in High Times magazine praised the initiative. Editor-in-chief Dan Skye called it a way for indigenous people to “finally…experience true sovereignty” and an “economic stimulus on Indian reservations which is so desperately needed.”
Mike Sager, renowned author and journalist and High Times contributor, agreed, saying, “hemp should be viewed as more benign than gambling but more positive for communities that could sponsor it” due to its economic potential.
Though marijuana is considered by many to be far less dangerous than alcohol, a painful legacy of alcoholism and drug abuse has affected the indigenous community for decades. But Chief Chavis urges people to remain strong and to realize the power to change that remains within themselves.
“When more sovereignty comes back to the nations maybe pride will increase, and maybe some of the reasons that people get into alcohol or drugs could start going away,” he said. “(But) it’s not going to be an overnight thing… People are human and have human choices to make.”