While the percentage of women and minority executives in cannabis has exponentially declined over the past few years, Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs are taking the initiative on reinventing the face of the industry. Throughout the United States, Native American tribes are investing in cannabis. A recent report by Matthew Klas in MJBiz Daily spotlighted the growth of Indigenous leadership in the sector, as well as the rise of tribal-owned businesses that benefit their local communities. Between these developments and the increasing visibility of Indigenous entrepreneurs in the public eye, it seems the next phase of the cannabis revolution will see plant medicine make a substantial return to its First Nation roots.
Tribal Sovereignty and Indigenous Cannabis Policy
The U.S. recognizes 574 Native American tribes, which are viewed as sovereign nations according to the Constitution and as defined by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). This means that tribes retain self-government of their own lands, and that laws created for these jurisdictions may differ from state and federal laws outside their borders.
Cannabis is often stigmatized in modern-day Indigenous communities due to harms inflicted by colonial practices and the War on Drugs. Tribal laws in some areas can be more restrictive on the plant, banning cannabis even in states where adult use has been legalized. But as a landmark session of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs revealed in June 2022, several tribes have acknowledged the value of entering into the cannabis business.
Tribal-Owned Cannabis Retailers State by State
As of January 2023, there were 44 tribal-owned cannabis retailers in eight states: Washington (the highest at 19 stores), Nevada, California, Michigan, New York, South Dakota, Minnesota, and New Mexico. The businesses are operated by 35 different tribes, with many located on reservations, although some are on non-tribal land. More are expected to open throughout 2023.
Indigenous-owned dispensaries in Minnesota and South Dakota, which have only one tribal operation each, offer solely medical cannabis. Retailers in the other six states provide both medical and adult-use products to their customers.
“Nationwide, the average tribal retail outlet footprint is roughly 6,300 square feet, although the size ranges from humble establishments of less than 1,000 square feet to elaborate complexes exceeding 25,000 square feet,” Klas describes in his report.
What’s the secret to Washington’s success as the state with the most tribal retailers (15 tribes operating 19 locations)? It’s partly the market’s early legalization and partly due to state legislators’ cooperation with tribal governments in the form of “compact” agreements that structure how cannabis sales will be regulated and taxed on and off tribal land.
Nevada follows Washington, having ten stores owned by eight different tribes.
New York's Indigenous-Owned Cannabis Business Growth: The Shinnecock Nation's Little Beach Harvest
Lest these seem like low numbers, there are hundreds of Indigenous-owned cannabis businesses throughout the nation which are operated by a member of a tribal community, but not by the tribe itself. Over 100 stores have been launched in New York, primarily small upstate businesses, by tribal members on sovereign land. Some of these establishments are licensed by the tribal government, such as the 17 retailers and five cultivators licensed by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Cannabis Control Board. (In other circumstances, New York’s tribal governments have tolerated unlicensed businesses or even actively worked to shut them down.)
Because of New York’s slow progress in opening state-licensed cannabis retailers, industry experts predict a majority of the Indigenous entrepreneurial boom will happen there. One of the most anticipated and unique developments is the Shinnecock Nation’s store and attached consumption lounge, part of a first-of-its-kind vertically integrated cannabis operation under the name Little Beach Harvest, on Long Island which is scheduled to open later this year. Little Beach Harvest is the result of a distinctive partnership between the Shinnecock and global cannabis provider TILT Holdings. Through a joint venture with the Shinnecock's tribal economic development firm Conor Green, TILT is financing, building, and providing management services to support Little Beach Harvest at all levels.
Groundbreaking on the dispensary site began in the summer of 2022, with construction on the cultivation facility a few months thereafter. The tribe is also expected to license other stores along the Montauk Highway.
Internationally acclaimed activist Chenae Bullock, Managing Director of Little Beach Harvest and a Shinnecock member and cultural preservationist, will speak at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2023 to highlight the tribe’s award-winning approach to the cannabis industry. Bullock will participate in two SXSW discussions focusing on the opportunities for people of color within the space. On March 11, she will join Gary Santos, CEO of TILT Holdings; Roz McCarthy, founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana and Black Buddha Cannabis; and NFL legend and Highsman founder Ricky Williams for the panel “No More Silos: Advancing Cannabis Social Equity.” Then on March 14, Bullock will appear in conversation with Sutton King, co-founder of The Urban Indigenous Collective, for “Indigenizing Systems.” The changemakers will expand the concept of forming more innovative systems through Indigenizing them, which can benefit contemporary societies with growth and suitability across sectors, from finance, governance, and communication, to medicine, and more.
Seneca Nation and Oneida Indian Nation-owned retail outlets are also expected to open in New York later this year.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are planning to open a medical cannabis dispensary as part of a vertically integrated business for late 2023. This will be a milestone development in the state, as North Carolina has not yet legalized medical cannabis, although a Senate panel voted to advance a potential legalization bill just last week.
What's Next For Indigenous Communities in the Cannabis Industry?
From these examples, the increasing importance of Indigenous presence in the cannabis industry is clear. Some tribes are especially well-positioned to open successful cannabis businesses, particularly in areas where sovereign tribal lands are located near the border of counties or states where cannabis sales are more restricted or even illegal, making Indigenous-owned stores the practical option for consumers in those areas. And as tribes continue to diversify their economies, many are viewing cannabis as a profitable investment that generates funds which can be reinvested into the community.
As many Native cannabis advocates argue, it’s time for tribal nations to encourage getting their populations reacquainted with plant medicine and traditions. The result is likely to be an even larger number of successful tribal and member-owned retailers across the country.
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A billboard in Long Island, New York advertises Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous-owned cannabis businesses, October 2022 (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture