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The tensions and issues around selling marijuana legally on California’s tribal lands

A customer purchases marijuana at Harborside marijuana dispensary, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Oakland, Calif.
A customer purchases marijuana at Harborside marijuana dispensary, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Oakland, Calif.
Mathew Sumner/AP

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Recreational marijuana may be legal in California, but businesses hoping to sell on tribal lands have hit a bit of a snag: they won’t be allowed to operate unless tribal governments give up their sovereignty.

To legally sell marijuana in California, businesses need a license from the state and the municipality they will be operating in. When licenses started being issued Jan. 1, many assumed licenses from sovereign tribal government would function the same as a license from a municipality – meaning marijuana businesses could operate legally on tribal lands as long as they also received a state license.

But because the passed legislation provided no framework for a license from a tribal government to interface with a state license, the state says its hands are tied and it’s unable to recognize licenses from tribal governments. Marijuana businesses can still operate legally on tribal lands, but the tribal governments would have to give up their civil jurisdiction to the state, in effect surrendering their sovereignty.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) is expected to introduce legislation that would create a framework for a tribal government license to interface with a state license in the next few months. A previous version of the bill didn’t make it out of policy committees, with stakeholder groups asking for more detail on how exactly the interface would work.

Marijuana legalization has not exactly gone smoothly for California. About one in ten marijuana stores in the state are legal, and allowing legal marijuana businesses to operate on tribal land would continue to undercut the legal state industry because federal taxes are much lower on tribal land. There’s also the concern within the marijuana industry that passing such legislation could create an over-saturation of growers in the market and drastically drive down prices.

Larry sits down with a reporter covering cannabis and a lawyer working on the legislation to explain the issue.


Amanda Chicago Lewis, LA-based freelance reporter covering cannabis; she has been following the story

Mark A. Levitan, attorney who specializes in tribal issues; he’s worked on a California bill that will be introduced this year that would give state tribes legal access to the commercial marijuana market