How Cannabis Legalization Can Affect Indigenous Communities

This cannabis plant’s been used for centuries by people from all nations, ethnic backgrounds, and religions. Despite this cultural ubiquity, cannabis has historically been about as far from being some kind of bastion of equity and inclusiveness as a plant species can get. 

It’s no secret that police institutions in the United States and Canada have used prohibition laws to unfairly target people who belong to marginalized groups and identities. This is especially true for people of color and those who belong to indigenous communities. But is simply legalizing cannabis enough to right these injustices, and what kind of impacts do legal markets really have on reservations? 

Indigenous History With Cannabis 

Long before the legal weed industry began raking in billions of dollars, the native people of North America maintained a more intimate relationship with the plant. So how did indigenous people consume cannabis before it became commercialized? Many of the communities used the herb medicinally and spiritually, with much greater intentionality than we see today.

There are obvious parallels to tobacco. What was once a sacred ritual became nothing more than an overproduced product filled with toxic additives and chemicals. Any cultural significance sacrificed on the altar of the all mighty dollar. Just like with tobacco, very little of these commercial profits actually make their way into reservations. 

But even before entrepreneurs ever dreamed of opening up dispensaries in legal markets, colonized conceptions of cannabis had immensely negative impacts on indigenous communities. Law enforcement agencies have historically taken advantage of anti-marijuana legislation to bolster their arrest numbers by prosecuting minority groups like indigenous people for victimless possession crimes. For many young people in these marginalized groups, early marijuana convictions lead to a life of institutionalization. Criminal records make it extremely difficult to find conventional employment and rejoin society, leading directly to recidivism. 

Discussions of racial disparities in marijuana convictions often get framed as a problem unique to the United States, but in reality, it’s a sickness that plagues all of North America. As recently as 2017, in Canadian cities like Regina, indigenous people were a whopping nine times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges.

Do Modern Legal Cannabis Markets Exclude Indigenous Communities? 

Putting an end to antiquated anti-cannabis laws and finally just legalizing the plant does help put an end to the unjust arrests and subsequent convictions of Native and First Nations people. Although the current paradigm does little in the way of empowering tribal communities to have autonomy over cannabis distribution on reservations.

Tribal leaders want more than just legalization; they want decolonized legalization. Achieving this they would be able to operate a cannabis business on tribal lands in a way that’s in line with the community’s historical connection to the plant. 

It’s important to note that the American legal cannabis industry is overwhelmingly white, much like the racial makeup of the legislators and regulatory boards that govern and oversee the industry. To truly create a market that’s equitable, it will take more than just legalization. It’s going to take an intentional dismantling of the systemic practices and biases that uphold white supremacy.     

When developing the guidelines around legal cannabis markets, even well-intentioned legislators need to be wary of treating indigenous communities as a monolith. There are over 500 recognized tribes in the United States alone—all with their own cultures, laws, and even sometimes languages.

What may be right for one tribe may not necessarily be suitable for another. For example, after decades of seeing their community ravaged by drugs and alcohol, the Yakama Nation opposes cannabis sales on their reservations. Despite recreational marijuana being legal in their home of Washington State. 

The path forward is not an easy one. More than anything, it will take time and understanding from all parties, but we can’t reach equality in the cannabis industry until we take our first steps.

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