FORT WASHAKIE – A Wyoming tribe is looking to hemp and medical marijuana as potential ways to bolster the Wind River Reservation economy and treat illnesses, an approach more and more tribes view as potentially lucrative.
In late September, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s General Council voted to approve a resolution to have a group examine legalizing medical marijuana and allowing hemp production as well as formulate a plan to potentially vote on. Advocates for the measures say hemp and cannabis-related businesses or cultivation could help diversify the reservation economy while also offering an additional option to treat some medical conditions.
"Some of the benefits we thought of together were to create more jobs and to heal our people,” said group member Bobbi Shongutsie. “We’re trying to transition hemp and medical cannabis into Wyoming so our tribe can get financially stable.”
The group -- made up of several Eastern Shoshone community members -- calls itself So-go-Beah Naht-Su’ in Shoshone, or Mother Earth and Medicine in English. In an interview Wednesday, members of the group said they have no plans to push for legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
The Eastern Shoshone Tribe isn't the first tribe to consider initiatives around hemp or cannabis. The Yurok Tribe in California earlier this year passed an ordinance to develop regulations around hemp on tribal land. The St. Croix Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin have plans to grow hemp to manufacture CBD oil, and two Michigan tribes earlier this year voted to allow recreational use on tribal land.
Though related to and closely resembling marijuana, hemp contains only a trace amount of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that produces a high.
While illegal in Wyoming and at the federal level, the U.S. government in 2014 said it would treat tribes as states in marijuana enforcement, meaning federal authorities would generally not interfere with tribes that loosen cannabis laws.
If the group is successful, the hemp could be grown for products that include rope, textiles, clothing, shoes, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel.
In addition to the medicinal uses of marijuana, cannabidiol – also known as CBD – can be extracted from hemp and its intoxicating cousin to treat seizures and other medical conditions.
The Hemp Business Journal estimated 2016 hemp sales at $688 million, with the trade publication saying those sales could jump to $1.8 billion by next year.
Until recently, those wanting to grow hemp have been blocked by bureaucratic hurdles.
The 2014 U.S. farm bill allowed cultivation of hemp for research purposes. Last year’s farm bill went further, allowing the production of industrial hemp under USDA regulations. Tribes must also submit their plans to, and get approval from, the USDA.
The USDA finalized its program regulations last month. The federal agency also approved a state plan earlier this month drafted by lawmakers to allow Wyoming farmers to begin growing hemp for the 2020 growing season.
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The Eastern Shoshone group overseeing the drafting of a proposal said it has been meeting for about six months and began seriously working on the idea about two months before their presentation at September's General Council meeting.
Group members on Wednesday said their goal is to “advocate, respect and encourage our tribal sovereignty to execute and stimulate tribal self-reliance.”
Allowing and starting medical marijuana and hemp-related businesses is a way to pivot away from relying on the energy industry for revenue to more sustainable businesses.
They said the businesses could give younger generations – who make up a large part of tribal membership – an interesting career they can take pride in or a reservation they can be proud of.
"We want to give them something to look forward to," said group member Alexis Eagle. "Every chance we get, we're talking about it."
The group said some older tribal citizens have expressed some hesitance, with most young people being supportive. For the skeptical, group members said they have already had, and plan more, informational meetings.
The tribe’s General Council is made up of all tribal members of voting age and has authority and oversight over the elected Business Council. But Vernon Hill, the Business Council’s chairman, said elected officials would still likely have a role in the process. He said leaders from both Wind River tribes would need to approve plans if the General Council approves proposals that allow individuals to start their own businesses instead of making them tribally-owned.
Still, he said he recognized that the group is putting together a plan, adding that the Business Council has asked that any proposal adhere to federal regulations, ensure minors don’t have access to cannabis and that hemp or cannabis isn’t sent to states where it’s still illegal, among others.
They’re expected to present their research and a proposal at the next General Council meeting, which could come in January.
“We want to make sure that it’s done right,” Hill said. “Mainly it’s all the stage where they’re researching this.”
So far, group members said their ideas have been mostly positively received, leaving them encouraged that their efforts will be successful.
“We obviously have a vision on getting hemp and medical cannabis here, and our very first step is taking it to our governing body,” Shongutsie said. “We are the last of the first seventh generation, inspiring and motivating the next seventh generation.”