Tribal leaders urge colleagues to consider marijuana businesses to boost revenue

PHOENIX — Tribal leaders from California and Washington discussed Thursday the potential opening of legal marijuana businesses on tribal lands.

Several members of the National Indian Gaming Association attended the meeting and touted the financial and health rewards.

David Vialpando, Santa Ysabel Gaming Commission chairman in Southern California, said the Iipay Nation has a marijuana enterprise that didn’t require a financial investment but reaps revenue.

Vialpando said the tribe creates revenue by leasing tribal land for growing marijuana, taxing licensed dispensaries and charging regulatory fees.

The tribe has six cultivators, one testing lab and one distillation facility that are all run by non-tribal tenants. The business takes up approximately ten acres. The marijuana is strictly for medical use and goes to licensed dispensaries outside of tribal land.

Medical marijuana is legal in Arizona, but attempts to legalize recreational marijuana have failed at the ballot box.

Recent moves to legalize medical marijuana on the Navajo Nation reservation have been stymied, according to the Navajo Times.

Vialpando mentioned at the conference that marijuana businesses have the potential to be more lucrative than running a casino.

Arizona has several casinos owned and operated by Native American tribes, including Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community and Tohono O’Odham Nation under agreements the state.

No Arizona tribal officials have expressed public interest in being involved in the marijuana businesses at this time.

In a 2011 meeting with tribal leaders and Arizona Department of Health Services officials, those at the meeting “expressed unified opposition” to a medical marijuana law, according to a DHS report.

But the group, which included representatives of the Hopi, Gila River and Tohono O’Odham tribes, also suggested DHS reach out to tribal elected leaders to see if they later wanted to determine “if their tribe would want to set up a Medical Marijuana dispensary on their reservation land subject to state rules and regulations,” the report said.

Vialpando said whether such businesses will work on tribal lands depends on state regulations.

Bill Sterud, chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington, said the tribe’s involvement in the recreational marijuana businesses has improved the economic circumstances and health of its tribal members. Marijuana use is legal for people 21 and older in Washington.

“I think it’s a strong statement for Indian sovereignty,” Sterud said. He said it helps relieve pain for the tribal elders and increases their quality of life.

Sterud said tribes looking to go into the cannabis business should keep an open mind, educate their tribal members on the health benefits and follow state regulations.

Annette Bryan, Puyallup tribe council member, said marijuana businesses “provide medicine for our people.”