Some Tribes See Opportunity In Marijuana Business, Others See Destruction

By Laurel Morales
February 05, 2015
Laurel Morales
Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi recently sang for a crowd in Flagstaff. He says his people have subsisted off of farming for generations so growing and selling medicinal marijuana would be a natural fit.

Marijuana has been legalized for either medicinal or recreational use in 23 states and Washington, D.C. The United States Department of Justice recently released a memo saying it would treat American Indian tribes the same way it treats states that have legalized pot.

That move inadvertently sparked interest among tribes in getting into the pot business. While many see dollar signs, others worry about the destructive legacy substance abuse has had on Indian Country.

Below the rim of the Grand Canyon the Havasupai Tribe has grown and smoked marijuana plants for more than a century. Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi said he was relieved to hear the Justice Department was recognizing tribal sovereignty when it comes to marijuana.

“I felt very free,” Tilousi said. “I don’t have to hide behind that rock. I don’t have to go into those bushes to smoke.”

The Havasupai make what little money they have taking visitors by mule and helicopter to see their famous turquoise blue waterfalls. And tourism is seasonal. So Tilousi said to have another economic source, like growing and selling medical marijuana, would really benefit his people.

“And this is how things should be,” Tilousi said.

Since the Justice Department’s memo was released in December, FoxBarry Farms has been inundated with more than a hundred calls from tribes that want to start grow operations.

“All tribes, generally speaking, want the same thing and that’s economic independence,” said FoxBarry President Barry Brautman, whose company helps tribes build casinos, hotels and now medical marijuana operations.

“A tribal government, just like any other government, wants economic opportunity for its members,” Brautman said. “They want housing, healthcare, education. They want to be able to fund those things themselves without having to ask for government assistance.”

A tiny northern California tribe, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, will be the first to grow and manufacture medical marijuana. FoxBarry Farms is helping the tribe build a $10 million grow house. Brautman expects to recoup his company’s investments and then some.

Laurel Morales
The Havasupai Reservation is best known for its waterfalls. Tourism is the tribe’s main source of income.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley's spokesman Deswood Tome said he understands how lucrative pot could be.

“This is opportunity for economic growth and jobs,” said Tome. “But there are so many questions that remain as to the safety of people. How is it going to be controlled? Is this going to attract the criminal element?”

Jennifer Joseph, who goes by Jonnie Jay on KUYI Hopi Radio, smoked pot years ago and said she’s skeptical about what good a marijuana grow operation would bring her tribe.

“Somehow it would get corrupted and not be for what it was intended to be,” Jay said. “So it is not a good idea for our tribe’s economy, although we desperately need economic growth and opportunity.”

Hopi leadership sees the earnings potential, but current tribal law still considers possession of marijuana a criminal act. And the Hopi have repeatedly turned down referendums on alcohol and gambling, to allow a marijuana operation.

Many throughout Indian Country worry legalized pot could lead to some of the same painful consequences as alcohol.

The Justice Department said the intent of the memo wasn’t to motivate tribes to get into the marijuana business. It was meant to prioritize laws against gangs and violence, driving while high, and selling to minors, among other problems.