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Native Americans Jump Way Ahead in Selling Legal Cannabis

While state governments dawdle, tribes like the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe are quickly setting up legal cannabis retail operations.

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If cannabis business success involves adapting quickly to changing circumstances, then Native American tribes provide a model to follow. While the federal government and some states continue to move slowly on making marijuana legal or setting up a regulated system, Native American tribes are setting up shop as quickly as possible.

Tribe leaders still must keep a wary eye on what comes out of Washington or the state legislature where they live. Although they're sovereign nations, with exclusive power over members and territory, Native American tribes still are subject to the limitations of federal law. Much like financial institutions, they face the risk of federal prosecution when they deal in the cannabis industry.

However, unlike the banks, Tribes have accelerated cannabis business operations in states where marijuana is legal. For example, they are moving much faster than the state government in New York, where weed became legal in March. City and State New York reported in August that "while the state dawdles on pot regulations, Native Americans in New York will likely begin sales before the end of the year." 

RELATED: The Shinnecock Nation Is Bringing Weed to the Hamptons


Native American entrepreneurs in New York prepared in advance

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which has territory in New York along the Canadian border, is an example of how quickly some tribes move on cannabis sales. The Tribe began setting up the rules for a regulated cannabis industry in 2019, including regulations governing the awarding of licenses.

They put the plan into place immediately following legalization in New York. Sales have already started there at a group of dispensaries, even though the Tribe has not licensed them (which has led to legal action). But despite the legal difficulties and being a three-hour drive from Syracuse, dispensary owners told the New York Times they are doing steady business.

The Times reported license plates in the parking lot from as far away as Vermont and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, New York officials only recently appointed members to the Cannabis Control Board, which did not hold its first meeting until early October. State leaders have tasked the board with creating regulations to govern the new, legal marijuana industry. 

RELATED: Native Tribes Should Have More Say in the Psychedelic Movement


Taking advantage of slow government action

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's dispensary owners told the Times they have won an advantage by launching adult-use cannabis business. In contrast, state leaders have acted slowly on putting a regulated system into place.

While the battle continues over what the Tribe calls illegal dispensaries, the formal regulations by the Tribe went into effect in June. They have started to accept applications for retail dispensary licenses and expect to award them in as little as six to eight weeks.

Once they start sales, the Tribe believes they will have about a two-year head start on the state of New York. Even older Tribe members said they support the cannabis business on the reservation. Paul Thompson, 77, told the Times: "You can make a darn good living. If it's an opportunity for the states, it should be an opportunity for our people."

New York is not the only state where Tribes are capitalizing on legal adult-use cannabis sales. Other examples include the Ely Shoshone tribe in Nevada, the Chehalis tribe in Washington (which offers Thunder Cannabis), and the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan.

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