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No Reservations: Tribal Law and Cannabis in Washington State

Washington
State has some of the most prosperous and active Native American tribes in the
nation. With 29 federally recognized tribes, its biggest cities bearing Native
American names, and NW Nativ

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Washington
State has some of the most prosperous and active Native American tribes in the
nation. With 29 federally recognized tribes, its biggest cities bearing Native
American names, and NW Native art around every corner, Native American history
and culture is celebrated throughout Washington State. In addition to having a
celebrated culture, like all federally recognized tribes, Washington state
tribes have what’s known as tribal sovereignty. This means Native American
reservations are allowed to operate under their own guidance and are free from
many federal and state regulations. This puts tribes in a unique position when
it comes to legal cannabis. But what that means for the future is anyone’s
guess.

There
has been lots of commotion regarding American Indian tribes getting into
cannabis on a national level. In December of last year, the Department of
Justice announced it would not prosecute tribes for growing or selling cannabis
on the reservation. Additionally, in February, House Bill 2000 and companion
bill SB-5848 were introduced into the House and Senate. The bills aimed to
authorize “the governor to enter into agreements with federally recognized
Indian tribes in the state of Washington concerning marijuana.” HB-2000 was
passed at the federal and state level in May, and went into effect July 24 of
this year.

Despite
the legal go-ahead from both the state and federal government for Native
Americans to get into the cannabis business, most tribes are foregoing the
opportunity. The only tribe in Washington State to truly embrace legal cannabis
is the Puyallup Tribe, which allows the regulated growing and consumption of
cannabis. Gyasi Ross, Native American lawyer, activist and musician, summed up
the complicated nature of tribal laws regarding cannabis in Washington.

“Here in
Washington State we have 29 federally recognized tribes. What that means is
probably 29 different approaches to weed, just like we have different approaches
to law and order, just like we have 29 different approaches to alcohol,” Ross
told Fusion.

Why so
many tribes in Washington have been reluctant to legalize cannabis within their
tribes is up for debate. While many may imagine Native American tribes as being
cannabis friendly, that’s not exactly true. Cannabis is not a native crop in
Washington, and many tribes suffer from issues with substance abuse, so the
cautious approach to cannabis is not unfounded. Hopefully, as more research
becomes available about the healing powers of cannabis, and less legal trouble
comes from using it, more people, tribe members included, will become
passionate about the plant.

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