White Earth votes in favor of producing and distributing medical marijuana

A worker cares for plants at Essence Vegas' marijuana cultivation facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

White Earth citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum on Tuesday asking if the tribe should begin growing, regulating and distributing medical marijuana on the reservation.

“It’s exciting,” White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks said. “The membership has spoken and it’s overwhelming.”

Nearly nine in 10 voters approved of the referendum, making the White Earth Nation the second tribe in Minnesota after the Red Lake Nation to vote to begin a medical marijuana program. Red Lake voters approved a similar referendum by a wide margin in May, and the tribe has already opened a dispensary for tribal members on the reservation.

Tribes in Minnesota have a unique opportunity to get a foothold in the highly profitable cannabis industry, given the state currently has among the most restrictive laws surrounding medical marijuana in the country but is poised to allow marijuana use more broadly in the coming years. Gov. Tim Walz has signaled support for legalizing marijuana use for adults.

As sovereign nations, tribes aren’t beholden to state laws governing medical marijuana. In Minnesota, marijuana isn’t permitted to be distributed in plant form to be smoked or ingested. Instead, medical cannabis must come in extracted forms — pills, powders, oils and lotions.

The state also restricts cannabis production and distribution to just two companies — Leafline Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions — giving them a duopolgy enshrined in state law. Doctors are also restricted in prescribing medicinal marijuana to only about a dozen conditions.

As in Red Lake, White Earth could produce and distribute medical marijuana in plant form and for more ailments, including opioid addiction, which has wreaked havoc on the reservation.

Fairbanks said it’s too soon to say when the tribe would begin producing medical marijuana. Farmers on the White Earth reservation already grow hemp — a type of cannabis without the psychoactive compound THC — but the tribe still has a lot to sort out before planting seeds in the dirt.

Beginning to cultivate marijuana also gives the tribes a head start as the state inches closer to legalizing recreational marijuana as 11 other states have already done.

“Minnesota is getting really close to having recreational marijuana, so it’s good to get our foot out there and mark our spot,” Fairbanks said.

Recreational marijuana has broad support among Minnesota voters. Two marijuana legalization parties earned major party status in 2018, joining the GOP and DFL in getting at least 5% of the vote for a statewide office and a vote in every county.

Walz has said he would sign into law a bill legalizing recreational marijuana and expunging the records of Minnesotans convicted of marijuana crimes, although such a bill couldn’t pass the Republican-controlled state Senate.

While marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, the federal government in the so-called Cole Memorandum has said it will not enforce its prohibition in states or reservations that have chosen to legalize it.