Dreaming About a Reefer

In the 1930’s novel, Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, he includes the words of a popular song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The first line is classic: “Dreamed about a reefer five feet long, not too mild, not too strong.” It created, for jazz aficionados, an image of a magical place where music and dreams mingled. Marijuana was not legal during the depression, but the laws were not enforced often. That changed in the post-World War II economic expansion and political contraction. Marijuana was lumped into a category with “hard” addictive drugs. Its users, growers and dealers have felt the full force of the law until recently.

The new century has brought new attitudes towards marijuana; possession penalties in twenty-three states have been reduced dramatically from a felony to a minor misdemeanor. In twenty-three states use and possession in some form is legal. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have legalized it for medical and recreational use. Ohio voters declined to be a part of the trend, but ten other states will be considering legalization of the weed in the next year. Other states are certain to follow; Colorado reported $70 million in tax revenue from marijuana in the last fiscal year.

The trend is clear to everyone except the feds. The federal government is conflicted; possession and use of marijuana regardless of the purpose is still a federal crime. The conflict cannot be easily resolved without a change in federal law – a thing unlikely to happen in a presidential election year. In an attempt to explain the government’s position on the issue, the United States attorney general’s office released a memo in August, 2013 called the “Cole Memorandum.” In the memo, eight federal law enforcement priorities are enumerated. The list includes: “sale to minors, involvement of organized crime, interstate sales, other illegal drugs, growth on federal lands and possession on federal property.” In other words, if use or sale does not cross one of those lines, federal law enforcement will look the other way. Well, not quite, the memo adds this caveat: “Nothing herein precludes investigation or prosecution where the investigation and prosecution otherwise serve an important federal interest.”

The memo prompted a number of federally recognized Indian tribes to ask for an interpretation specific to Indian country. In October, 2014 the feds responded, saying in part: “The eight priorities in the Cole Memorandum will guide United States Attorney’s marijuana enforcement efforts in Indian Country, including in the event that sovereign Indian Nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country. In evaluating marijuana enforcement activities in Indian Country, each United States Attorney should consult with the affected tribes on a government-to-government basis.” And to make certain no one forgets the feds make the rules, the memo adds: “Nothing in the Cole Memorandum alters the authority or jurisdiction of the United States to enforce federal law in Indian Country.”

Now that is clear, isn’t it? The opinion says that enforcement is up to the individual U. S. attorneys, that there is no broad federal policy. The vagueness has lead to a wide variety of interpretations. Several tribes have decided to enter the medical marijuana field. The Seneca in New York and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone in Nevada both want to grow marijuana for medical purposes. It sounds like a good idea, but I wonder if the tribes consulted with the U. S. Attorney’s office? That should be enough, but it wasn’t enough for the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. The Menominee also decided it wanted to be in the medical marijuana business. The tribe was growing hemp for research and invited the feds to come and watch a harvest. Instead of watching, the feds destroyed all of the crops, even though the tribe was growing hemp and separate federal legislation put hemp in a special and protected category, or so the tribe thought.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon announced their intent to enter the medical marijuana industry with a new cultivation facility. Chanelle Bessette, Reno Gazette Journal, 10-28-15

Members of the Seneca Indian Nation voted  to let their tribal leaders draft laws and regulations allowing the tribe to make and distribute medical marijuana.  James Mulder, Syracuse Post-Standard, 11-4-15

Federal agents destroyed a Wisconsin-based tribe’s industrial hemp crop that was being grown as a research project, and the tribe’s chairman says he’s perplexed as to why federal agents unilaterally ended a project the tribe believe was legal under the 2014 Farm Bill.  Kristi Eaton, Indian Country Today, 10-30-15

It is interesting and merits tracking as more tribes explore medical marijuana as a business option. But that is medicine and dull and it has nothing to do with fun stuff or gaming. However, the story does get better. The Santee Sioux of South Dakota have an idea for those people who may have dreamed about a reefer five feet long – a reefer resort. The tribe hopes to open its resort for New Year’s Eve. Ring in 2016 in style, it is party time in South Dakota!

In September, the Santee Sioux tribe of South Dakota announced that it was embracing new laws that allow Native American Tribes to sell and consume marijuana on their reservations by opening a marijuana-themed resort… The marijuana resort is slated to open on New Year’s Eve. Laura Brodbeck, Benzinga, 10-5-15

But it turns out that the word resort may be a slight exaggeration. The truth as reported by Courthouse News is something much less elaborate; according to the report the tribe is converting an old bowling alley into a lounge for smoking the mythical leaves. That is not quite as romantic as a resort. But, maybe it is just a first step, a way to test the waters without putting too much money at risk.

The Santee Sioux hope the marijuana “smoking lounge” they are building in a converted bowling alley will bring $2 million a month to the tribe. Lacey Louwagie, Courthouse News Service, 10-19-15

The project in South Dakota might or might not pass federal muster. But even if it does not, another project in another federal district might. A better test would be in the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington both have recreational marijuana laws and Indian casinos. The tribes could easily add marijuana to their list of amenities. Think of the competitive advantages and possibilities. Conventional casinos in the country cannot offer marijuana at the bars, in the rooms or any place else, but those tribes might. If the surveys on the changing attitudes toward marijuana are accurate, there is a very large market out there for marijuana resorts. A survey released in March 2015 said 53 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana; the number goes up to 68 percent for Millennials.

Even if the South Dakota experiment works, it is a long way from any population centers. However, some of the tribes in Oregon and Washington are not remote. They are very close to metropolitan areas and they already have hotels, restaurants, shopping, entertainment and of course casinos – it would not take much to create some first class places to enjoy a hit of that magical joint that captured the imagination of jazz enthusiasts in the 1930s. Those jazzers are all gone, but their grandchildren are alive, well and looking for a party.


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