A South Puget Sound tribe is planning a grand opening at 4:20 p.m. on Thursday for what it believes is the nation’s first marijuana store on a reservation.
The recreational marijuana shop is in a small, simple building across the street from the Squaxin Island Tribe’s casino near Shelton, Washington. The retail store is named “Elevation.”
Squaxin councilman Jim Peters said he and fellow tribal members had qualms about getting into the retail marijuana business.
“You know I really don’t feel comfortable going that route,” Peters said in describing his thinking at first. “But if it is legal and we can take advantage of a business for our community and we can get some revenue out of it, I’m willing to try it out.”
Peters said his tribe negotiated an agreement with the state government to collect a tribal tax equivalent to what is charged off-reservation. The Squaxin tribe is not growing its own product, but rather buying wholesale from the same state-regulated system the rest of the recreational pot industry uses.
Peters said the Squaxin Island Tribe did not deliberately set out to open the first retail marijuana shop in Indian Country, but he added, “Being in the business early is an advantage.”
One other Western Washington tribe, the Suquamish, has also signed a state-tribal compact for a marijuana store, which is now under construction in Kitsap County.
Neither the Suquamish nor Squaxins have ruled out someday becoming vertically integrated by expanding into marijuana growing and processing. “But it costs a lot to build the buildings to be able to produce an amount of product,” Peters said. “We just weren’t ready to do that yet.”
The tribal council member said the retail marijuana shop will help to diversify the tribe’s economic enterprises, which also include a shellfish company, cigarette factory, casino/hotel and several gas stations.
The U.S. Justice Department indicated in a policy memo published a year ago that it would take the same approach to marijuana on tribal lands as toward states that have legalized pot such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
The department signaled it will de-emphasize federal marijuana enforcement if a state or tribal government puts in place strong oversight that keeps marijuana out of the hands of minors and freezes out gangs and traffickers.
The so-called Cole Memorandum prompted numerous tribes across the West to explore whether to enter some aspect of the marijuana industry. But outside of the few states that have legalized recreational pot for adults, the business still looks risky.
The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota legalized marijuana on its reservation and had planned to open a lounge or resort to sell marijuana. But President Anthony Reider told the Associated Press that the tribe burned its crop on Saturday to avoid a raid on its facility. Reider said more talks with state and federal officials are planned in hopes of reviving the project when all parties are more comfortable with it.
In July, federal agents and Modoc County sheriff’s deputies raided two large scale growing operations on opposite sides of Alturas in northeastern California. Over protests from tribal leaders, the federal government seized about 12,000 marijuana plants and over 100 pounds of processed marijuana from the Alturas Indian Rancheria and Pit River Tribe’s XL Ranch.
A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said that federal investigators were concerned large quantities of pot were destined for distribution to places off of tribal lands where it is not authorized and posed “potential threats to public safety.”
The Pit River tribal chairman deemed the raid a violation of tribal sovereignty in a press release.