On Aug. 18, the White Earth tribe will have an election about tribal leadership and medical marijuana. That’s right, White Earth is going to vote on legalizing medical marijuana, according to Tribal Council meeting notes of July.

White Earth would be the second tribe, after Red Lake, to legalize it and make these medicines more accessible in the north country. Currently there are only nine medical marijuana dispensaries in Minnesota, and only two “up north,” in Hibbing or Moorhead, which is out of range for most Natives and others living further north and northwest.

Red Lake’s regulations will allow for a longer approved list of diagnoses and will include cannabis in flower form, something not available under current state regulations. Opioid addiction recovery is one of the eligible conditions. Notes Kevin Jones of the Chippewa Cannabis Party, "I hope it helps the opioid crisis, we got hit hard with that. I hope that changes a lot of it and helps families bring parents, aunties and uncles back to where they were before. It won't bring the ones we lost back. But it will make a new path for the ones on that journey today."

The timing is right to make medical cannabis available to our people. This spring, both the Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic did big stories on the benefits of it to treat a wide variety of medical conditions, including Alzheimer's Disease, ALS, HIV/AIDS, cancer, Crohn’s Disease, glaucoma, PTSD stress and more. Native people should have easy access to those benefits but dispensary locations say otherwise.

Follow Oklahoma's example

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So, get out and vote. And take a look at an unusual superhero in medical marijuana -- conservative Oklahoma -- that the Supreme Court just recognized is Indian territory, at least half of it anyway. The state has a huge number of medical dispensaries. However, its medical cannabis laws don’t specify a list of qualifying conditions. The state has declared that all medical marijuana recommendations shall be given out “according to the accepted standards a reasonable and prudent physician would follow when recommending or approving any medication.” Their law states that all applicants for a medical marijuana license must be 18 years of age or older. Special exceptions can be granted to applicants under the age of 18 who have approval and signatures from two state-licensed physicians, as well as their parent or legal guardian.

Oklahoma has as close to free market capitalism for medical marijuana as can be imagined. There are no restrictions on the number of permits to be issued, nor zoning restrictions. There are over 200,000 patients --more per capita than any other state -- and so far, licenses were issued for 2,168 dispensaries, 1,415 processors and 4,931 growers. The industry started in 2018, and in 2020 it’s already worth about $350 million. That’s real money, spread across a lot of businesses and a lot of patients.

By comparison, Minnesota’s medical marijuana business is controlled by just two corporations: Minnesota Medical Solutions and Leafline Labs, associated with the Bachman Nursery’s business. Both are Twin Cities-based. Vireo Health LLC is the parent company of Minnesota Medical Solutions Company and is headed by Dr. Kyle Kinsley, a former ER doctor from Shakopee. According to a "Star Tribune" article, Kinsley first considered that “medical marijuana” might do a lot more for patients than the profligate alcohol and opioid use he witnessed every night in the ER.

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Access to cannabis

Business is good at both companies. Kinsely’s company is worth about $350 million. But access to entering this industry, particularly in the north country among native people, remains challenging. Limiting the current medical marijuana industry to just two companies may have short-term regulatory benefits, but the reality is that cannabis has the potential to illustrate economic justice.

Native and other people of color could grow and own this business. Minnesota’s model doesn’t accomplish that. In Oklahoma, low-income medical patients can grow their own, which helps a lot of people who suffer and want cannabis. The White Earth vote is a vote for a newer, greener economy. Over the past two years, our reservation has fallen behind other tribes in hemp regulation. But now is an opportunity to embrace cannabis as a catalyst for change and to bring income to the community.

In the larger context, the failed War on Drugs has put more people of color in jail historically for marijuana, than white people per capita, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Basically, 52% of the country’s drug arrests, until recently, were for small amounts of marijuana. That stays on your record. Expunging records and legalizing cannabis would help a lot of tribal members.

Whatever White Earth does, it’s likely that Minnesota will legalize cannabis in a few years. But it’s really a question of what a tribe wants to do to share in this burgeoning cannabis economy and its life-saving medicines. Realistic economic plans during a time of pandemic are hard to come by. Locally grown cannabis not only has real economic potential, but can begin to stabilize our deep physical and mental health crisis. And it can help heal communities. We will see how it goes.