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Largest Native American Tribe Takes Step Toward Reforming Marijuana Laws

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The largest Native American tribe is assembling a working group to study how it can use marijuana and hemp to boost commerce, health care and farming.

The Cherokee Nation’s seven-member “Executive Work Group on Hemp, Cannabis and Related Opportunities” will examine issues such as modernizing agriculture practices and identifying legal barriers to marijuana access. It will make recommendations based on those findings to tribal leadership by May 31.

“As Chief, I want well-informed policy, and the team we have assembled will be a great asset in that regard,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a press release last week. “I believe there are opportunities for Cherokee Nation, our businesses and our citizens to benefit from this emerging industry.”

“But we need to move forward carefully and responsibly and in absolute strict adherence to the law in order to ensure success and sustainability,” he said.

The Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma, does not currently allow any medical or recreational marijuana. The state of Oklahoma legalized medical cannabis in June 2018. Months later, Cherokee Nation Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo clarified that the statewide reform wouldn’t apply to the tribe’s lands and its members.

“State law legalization of medical marijuana has no effect on the Cherokee Nation as state law does not apply to Cherokee Nation,” Nimmo said at the time. “The possession and distribution of marijuana remains illegal under tribal and federal law.”

The attorney general argued that one condition of receiving federal funding is that the tribe is prohibited from promoting the legalization of controlled substances like cannabis. It’s not clear if concerns about the potential loss of federal dollars is founded but, without specific policies to clarify the rules, some fear legalization would jeopardize those funds.

That said, earlier this month the Cherokee Nation changed its workplace drug test policy to protect licensed medical marijuana patients from losing their jobs.

Some federal lawmakers have put forth proposals to resolve these federal-tribal conflicts in marijuana policy. Last year, the House approved a spending bill amendment to protect cannabis laws enacted by Native American tribes from federal interference—but the Senate did not follow suit and the language was not included in the final legislation send to the president.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) also filed a standalone bill to protect tribes from federal meddling if they choose to legalize marijuana.

Presidential candidates in the 2020 race are paying attention to this issue, too. In August, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced her plan to make the federal government more accountable to tribal governments. That includes respecting their marijuana policies, she said.

But while the federal government has failed to reform its stance on cannabis legalization in tribal territories, there has been progress on hemp. Congress legalized low-THC hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill, and last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the first hemp regulatory plans for Native American tribes, along with those of some states.

It is possible that Cherokee Nation could choose to allow hemp farming and submit its regulatory plan to USDA for federal approval. But it could also go further like the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York, which last month approved medical cannabis and marijuana legalization ballot measures.

USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware

Photo by Matteo Paganelli from Unsplash.

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Alexander Lekhtman is a journalist and musician based in New York City. He hopes to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Follow more of his work at www.alexanderlekhtman.com

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