Plans for Warm Springs Tribes’ cannabis dispensary stalled by low voter turnout

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
June 7, 2024 7 p.m.

Members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs voted Wednesday on whether the tribal government should open a retail cannabis dispensary, as well as legalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and older on the reservation in Central Oregon. But not enough voters turned out to decide an outcome, even as the Tribes’ first cannabis farm churns out its initial crop.

Opening a cannabis farm on the reservation got much more enthusiastic reaction from Warm Springs voters in 2015, when tribal members overwhelmingly turned out during a snowstorm to approve the idea, as reported by Warm Springs community radio station KWSO. This week’s referendum on a retail storefront to sell the farm’s crop and allow possession of recreational cannabis fell flat.

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2019, file photo, a bud tender shows a top cannabis strain at Serra, a dispensary in Portland, Ore.

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2019, file photo, a bud tender shows a top cannabis strain at Serra, a dispensary in Portland, Ore.

Richard Vogel / AP

The tribal government requires 1,225 voters — or one third of the eligible tribal members — to cast ballots before an election is valid. The June 5 referendum didn’t pass that mark. Early, unofficial vote counts published by KWSO showed just 866 out of 3,673 eligible voters cast ballots.


That tally puts the brakes on plans for the Tribes to sell its own marijuana products at a retail storefront, and it means the possession and use of cannabis remains illegal on the Warm Springs reservation.

As sovereign nations, tribes set their own rules for cannabis on the reservation and on lands held in federal trust for them. Oregonians voted to legalize the recreational sale and use of cannabis in 2014. Federally, the Controlled Substances Act still criminalizes marijuana in most instances, though government officials recently indicated a desire to lower the schedule status of cannabis, which would make it legal in more circumstances.

Related: OSU partners with Native American tribes to explore making products and materials with hemp

Unofficial Warm Springs results show more people voted in favor of legalizing cannabis sales than voted against the referendum, KWSO reports, though the official tally won’t be certified by the Warm Springs tribal council until Monday.

Warm Springs’ tribally-owned cannabis farm became operational in February and is expected to have its first crop production this month, according to Jim Souers, CEO of the Warm Springs Economic Development Corporation.

Souers supported the failed sales referendum, and in a May interview with KWSO, estimated that a tribally-owned dispensary could generate $1.2 million in annual revenue, $60,000 in annual profits, and employ eight people.

Industry data suggests a recent surge in tribally-operated dispensaries. As of last month, MJBizDaily, a trade publication for the cannabis industry, counted 57 tribally-owned medical marijuana dispensaries and adult-use stores across the country, a 25% increase since last year.