A federal raid on a cannabis household property on tribal land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico sparked controversy over who has how much enforcement powers on Indian reservations. As more states accept legal adult cannabis use, the question of how much power the state, federal, and tribal governments have over the land remains unclear.
On September 9, agents with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) confiscated nine plants from a garden in the Picuris Pueblo home of Charles Farden, 54, a lifelong resident of the reservation who is actually not a Native American. Farden participates in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program to manage post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
Farden told the Associated Press he was shocked he was handcuffed when federal agents uprooted his plants, which were then full of buds – about a year of personal supply he estimated.
“I was just frank with the officer, straight forward. When he asked what I grow, I said, ‘My vegetables, my medicinal cannabis,’ “Farden told AP. “And he said, ‘That can be a problem.'”
Federal law comes first?
New Mexico lawmakers approved a medical marijuana program in 2007, while Picuri’s Pueblo launched its own parallel program for tribal members in 2015.
As Picuris Governor Craig Quanchello told Albuquerque’s The Paper, “We exercise our sovereignty. We went through our community and said, okay, this is something. This is what we want to do. How does the community feel about cannabis from a medical perspective? … We wanted to offer our citizens an alternative medicine and we wanted options … We wanted an affordable drug. “
And this becomes a more pressing question as the land of enchantment gains a legal market for adults. In April of that year, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a general law legalizing cannabis, which went into effect in June, allowing up to six plants per person, or 12 per household, for personal use with no weight limit. Commercial sales are slated to begin next April. At least two of the 23 federally recognized tribes in New Mexico are seeking an agreement with the state that will allow them to conduct cannabis businesses – Picuris and Acoma Pueblo.
But the federal agencies, of course, do not recognize any state legalization law. And it is federal agencies that share law enforcement responsibilities with the governments of the recognized tribes. This is particularly a problem for Picuris, a small pueblo that doesn’t have its own police force and relies on BIA officials to enforce tribal laws. The specter of the BIA raids could turn plans for retail stores in the pueblos on their head.
In a recent letter to Governor Quanchello received from the Associated Press, a relevant BIA special envoy said the agency would not instruct its officials to relax the enforcement of the reservations – and that despite any state changes, cannabis cultivation remains a federal crime or tribal law.
“Advance notification of law enforcement operations is generally inappropriate,” the letter said. “The BIA Office of Justice Services is committed to enforcing federal law and is not instructing its officials to ignore violations of federal law in the Indian country.”
Officials from the BIA and the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the agency, did not respond to the AP’s request to comment on the matter. Farden has not been charged with any criminal charge.
Start in Picuris
The September bust of Picuris also had a prelude about four years earlier. On November 30, 2017, agents from the BIA’s Drug Control Department arrived in the pueblo to uproot and confiscate a 36-plant medical marijuana “test parcel” that had been set up on land under the control of the tribal government.
News is still slowly spreading in this rugged and remote part of the state, and it wasn’t until the following November that the Albuquerque Journal penned the raid. “They took the plants and threatened to prosecute us,” Governor Quanchello told the newspaper.
A year later, there had still been no arrests or charges. But the test plot was not replanted.
Governor Quanchello stressed that the pueblo had been completely open to state and federal authorities about what they were doing. “We even told them if they ever wanted to attack us, you’d have to go here,” he told the Journal.
The US Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque was contacted by the Journal to comment on the raid and emailed this brief response: Office, do not comment on investigations. ”
Negotiate a solution
The second crackdown on Picuris in September this year dampened hopes that the situation would improve under Joe Biden’s new administration.
In its report on the new raid, the Associated Press quoted Portland-based criminal defense attorney Leland Berger, who advised the South Dakota Oglala Sioux tribe last year after they launched a cannabis program. Berger implicitly took note of the 2014 Wilkinson Memo, which instructed federal prosecutors not to interfere with cannabis sales or cultivation on tribal land. “It is remarkable to me to hear that the BIA is enforcing federal controlled substances law on tribal land where the tribe has enacted an ordinance protecting the activity,” he said.
As noted by the AP, other indigenous nations across the country have successfully entered into agreements with state and federal agencies – albeit informally in the case of the latter.
In Washington in 2015, the Suquamish tribe struck a “compact” with the state to open a retail cannabis store across from Seattle’s Puget Sound on their Port Madison reservation.
In Nevada, several reservations now operate dispensaries that align their own tribal laws with the state’s medical marijuana program and regulations on adult use.
In South Dakota, the Oglala Sioux were the only tribe last year to establish a cannabis market with no parallel government regulation and to approve both medicinal and adult use in a March referendum on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In November of that year, a nationwide referendum legalized adult cannabis use in South Dakota, despite the state’s Supreme Court banning its effectiveness in November of that year.
Sometimes the state presence in tribal areas is welcomed by reservation governments. President Biden ordered several federal agencies in November this year to coordinate new efforts to combat human trafficking and crime in the Indian country, where violence rates are more than double the national average. But the boundaries between tribal and federal power have long been disputed. As Berger told AP, “The tribes are sovereign nations, and they have treaties with the United States, and in some cases there is co-jurisdiction … It’s kind of a hybrid.”
“We are discriminated”
Cannabis Now reached out to Governor Craig Quanchello by phone in Picuri’s Pueblo. He enters some details about the two raids on the reservation.
Of the medical marijuana test area destroyed in November 2017, he emphasizes the tribal government’s efforts to be transparent. “We met with the US Attorney General, and they [Taos] County and state officials to let them know what we were doing. Our program mirrored that of the state, but we added PTSD and opioid abuse as treatable conditions. ”
Nonetheless, during the 2017 raid, they “brought dogs and surveillance planes with them – basically they paralyzed our world. At that point we hesitated to move forward. “
With new administrations in Washington and Santa Fe this year, the tribe was only just beginning to overcome that hesitation. House Bill 2, the legalization measure signed by Governor Lujan Grisham on April 12th, contains a provision for “intergovernmental agreements with Indian nations, tribes and pueblos”.
Then in November came the raid on Charles Farden, a non-native married to a tribal member and on the state’s medical marijuana program. “The pueblo recognizes the state map,” says Quanchello.
Quenchello sees cannabis as an obvious option for the mountain-trapped pueblo, where the already meager economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are farmers by nature,” he says. “We have always grown our traditional crops – corn, hay, alfalfa. We don’t have a large population, but we have land. We see this as a means of economic development. “
And he describes the willingness to work together with the state government in good faith. “We don’t have to,” he says. “We are sovereign. But we want to do it in teamwork. “
Nevertheless, he is open about his frustration at two federal raids, even if other reservations in the USA were left a little air.
“Why is the BIA hacking at us, the smallest pueblo in New Mexico, with no game and not on a traffic route? The money doesn’t go into anyone’s pocket, it goes back to the community – to provide health care for our children, our elders. We don’t get enough federal funding to work, and funds are dwindling every year. We are discriminated against here. “