Excluding tribes from California pot boom is unjust

Assemblyman Rob Bonta speaks to reporters in Sacramento in January. He is leading negotiations to give California tribes access to the  legal marijuana market.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta speaks to reporters in Sacramento in January. He is leading negotiations to give California tribes access to the legal marijuana market. AP file

Native Americans have always lived on the land Californians call home. Where cities and counties now stand, our tribes grew food and medicine — including cannabis — to feed and heal our communities. Today, California has 110 federally recognized tribes and the largest population of Native Americans in the United States. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — our indigenous status, tribes are excluded from California's legal cannabis market.

Under current California law, states and counties do not recognize licenses issued by tribal governments. As a result, cannabis businesses located on native land and licensed by tribal governments cannot participate in California's legal market, without giving up self-governance.

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Will Micklin

The irony of being shut out of the cannabis market, while out-of-state and even foreign companies are licensed, is striking. California was all native land until tribes were nearly exterminated by disease, enslavement and genocide. Today limited opportunities and resources constantly threaten our survival. The few tribes with casinos are exceptions. Most tribal members are poor and many tribes lack even running water, electricity, paved roads and other essential services. These inequities are compounded by high unemployment, substance abuse and chronic health conditions.

Growing and selling cannabis on the legal market can help. "But you have gaming," we often hear, "why do you need cannabis, too?" The question suggests all Native Americans have casinos and should be limited to one revenue source.


Last year, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced Assembly Bill 924 to recognize tribes' licensing authority, but the bill was held in committee. Under AB 924, tribes must meet or exceed the state's public health and safety standards for cannabis businesses, track and trace products, report sales to the state, undergo regular audits, conduct background checks and work exclusively with other state-licensed operators.

AB 924 also requires tribes to levy taxes at or above state levels. By contrast, in Oregon and Washington state, tribes keep all revenue from cannabis sales, even off reservation.

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Tina Braithwaite

Some question whether tribes can regulate cannabis. The suggestion that indigenous people cannot self-govern is misinformed at best. Tribes are indisputably sovereign governments under federal law and do not fall under state, county or municipal authority.

Tribes don't want special treatment or a handout. We want an opportunity to help our families and fulfill the intent of Proposition 64. Allowing tribes to take part in the legal cannabis market will give them an opportunity to benefit from this exciting new economic opportunity and promote social justice.

Excluding tribes perpetuates past injustices and leaves California's cannabis market incomplete. The Golden State has the chance to do right by Native Americans. We hope legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown take it.

Will Micklin is executive director of the California Association of Tribal Governments and can be contacted at Tina Braithwaite is chairwoman of Utu Utu Gwaitu Paiute Band of the Benton Reservation and vice-chairwoman of the California Native American Cannabis Association and can be contacted at