Some Indian Nations Plan To Join New York’s Legal Marijuana Business

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At least two Native American nations in New York are taking active steps to get into the marijuana business in the wake of the state’s legalization of adult-use recreational weed this month.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island plans to break ground on a marijuana facility in the next few weeks with hopes of selling marijuana later this year, according to a report in Newsday. The Saint Regis Mohawks in Northern New York this week are discussing a tribal ordinance that would regulate legal marijuana on its territory near Hogansburg in Franklin County, according to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

It’s possible those operations could be up and running before the state is able to set up it own regulations for the legal sale of marijuana. Although possession of up to three ounces by those 21 and over is currently legal, state officials have estimated it might take 18 to 24 months for the legal production and sale of non-medical marijuana to begin statewide.

Other New York Indian nations have not yet made public announcements on marijuana since state legalization took effect April 1.

The Oneida Indian Nation in Central New York is “studying the idea” but has made no decision, according to Joel Barkin, the nation’s vice president for communications.

Leaders of the Onondaga and Cayuga nations could not be reached for comment, but neither has issued a public statement on the topic since the state legalization took effect April 1.

The Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York has indicated in the past that it is interested in pursuing the legal marijuana business. Nation president Rickey Armstrong, Sr. said in 2019 that the Senecas could be “ready to strike” once the state legalized marijuana. Through a spokesmen, the Senecas declined comment today.

Some of the state’s Indian nations are already in the legal industrial hemp business, in which they grow and process a form of cannabis that does not contain significant amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Some also grow THC-cannabis for medical marijuana.

Native American nations in some other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have entered that business.

In Nevada, for example, the Paiute Nation is the largest dispensary (retail sales) operator in the state, said Heather Trela, a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute at SUNY Albany and an expert in marijuana policy.

In Nevada and Washington state, Trela said, the tribal nations operate the marijuana business under agreements with the states called compacts. Those are similar to the compacts under which New York’s Indian nations operate casinos and other gaming facilities.

In Michigan, Trela said, the Indian nations are set up in competition with the state-regulated legal marijuana program.

In California, meanwhile, the tribal marijuana business has been stymied by issues over sovereignty, Trela said.

New York’s new marijuana legalization law does not specifically address marijuana on the state’s sovereign Indian nations, Trela said.

“It’s a bit murky,” she said, “like a lot of things in the legalization.”

In general, the Indian nations appear to have the right, under federal law, to do what they want with marijuana on their own land. The question of local law enforcement can become an issue, Trela said.

If New York’s Indian nations do start selling recreational marijuana, it appears those sales would be legal to non-Native Americans, Trela said. But taking that marijuana off the sovereign Indian territory would be subject to the new law.

“You wouldn’t be able to buy more than the legal amount and take it (off the territory) for example,” Trela said.

In the case of the Saint Regis Mohawks, the nation’s own internal laws currently prohibit marijuana sales. The nation last week issued “cease and desist” orders to several unlicensed and unregulated marijuana dispensaries found operating in the tribe’s jurisdiction, the Press-Republican reported.

Those orders will remain in effect until the Saint Regis Mohawks can take a vote on their own marijuana ordinance, the newspaper reported.