Regulatory policy

Federal Cannabis Policy Creates Challenges in Indian Country


Last year, state policymakers faced the challenge of establishing a regulatory and tax regime for adult cannabis after a bipartisan majority of voters passed I-190 in the US election. 2020. While cannabis policy is still ongoing, we have done a lot to ensure the industry is responsibly implemented in Montana.

Our burgeoning cannabis industry offers many opportunities for Montana residents. We are already seeing new jobs created by entrepreneurs building businesses ranging from cultivation to retail to laboratory support services. And this industry as a whole is just getting started – the potential for growth is enormous.

Throughout this process, my top priority has been to ensure that Native Americans in Montana are not excluded from this opportunity. It has not been easy due to the unique challenges our tribal nations face.

When the Legislative Assembly passed HB 701 last session, our intent was to issue a single automatic license to each of our Tribal Nations to allow them to grow and sell cannabis. However, the Department of Revenue has interpreted this provision of HB 701 much more narrowly than the legislature intended, inadvertently limiting the ability of tribes to expand a cannabis operation beyond the smallest permitted size.

This is a problem I will fight to fix in the next session, and already the interim Economic Affairs has proposed a bill to do just that. But this licensing dispute illustrates the challenges tribes face with cannabis.

This is also true at the federal level. Montana’s tribes live in a gray area as sovereign nations on federal property. Tribes have more interaction with the federal government than any county or municipal government, which makes federal ambiguity over cannabis policy all the more difficult for us.

As state after state, now 37 in total, have created a legal cannabis market, there is a growing need for the federal government to begin clarifying its regulations. States, and for that matter tribal nations, should always have the final say on the legality of cannabis in their jurisdictions, but the federal government must first clear the cloud of uncertainty that exists for legal cannabis.

State policy makers follow the directives given to them by their citizens. As public sentiment has shifted towards support for cannabis legalization, we see state regulations following suit. Ten years ago, the majority of Americans opposed the legalization of cannabis. Today, that sentiment has completely changed, and nearly 60% of Americans believe cannabis should be legal for medical and adult use.

But as legal cannabis spreads from state to state, we need to make sure it’s made responsibly. Nowhere is this more important than for minority communities like our tribal nations. In Montana, I think we’ve done a good initial job of providing additional resources for law enforcement and addiction services, for example. But it behooves us as legislators to carefully review the progress of our cannabis industry in the upcoming session to see where we can do better.

This is also what we should expect from our federal policymakers, as they plan to build on the small steps they have already taken to clarify a national regulatory framework. But this process needs to accelerate in Washington DC – the longer it drags out, the more opportunities for jobs and growth for the tribes of Montana are delayed.

Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, represents Senate District 21, which includes the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. He is vice-chairman of the Marijuana Law Select Committee.