Warm Springs Tribe Hopes Its Cannabis Company Brings Jobs, Not a Federal Crackdown

The very tribe Devontre Thomas is a member of is poised to enter the marijuana business.

Devontre Thomas' marijuana-possession case includes a twist: The very tribe he is a member of is poised to become one of the first in the nation to successfully dive into the legal cannabis business.

The Warm Springs tribe hopes to open a 36,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation, extraction and wholesaling facility on reservation land in the next year—a project approved by a majority vote of tribal members and coordinated with Gov. Kate Brown's office.

The Warm Springs tribe believes getting into the pot business will bring jobs to an area that badly needs them.

"When's the last time you've even seen an emerging market? Shellfish? Timber?" asks Pi-Ta Pitt, cannabis project coordinator for Warm Springs. "We've never really seen something come out of the dark like this. We have the opportunity to create sustainable jobs without a lot of environmental impact.

"When you're looking at the poverty levels and unemployment levels that we have? Heck, yeah."

Don Sampson, CEO of Warm Springs Ventures, says in addition to jobs in cultivation on the reservation, the tribe plans to open three dispensaries—in Portland, Eugene and Salem—to sell the product.

Pot possession is illegal on federal property, and it's also illegal for Warm Springs tribal members of any age to have weed on the reservation.

On this point, representatives of Warm Springs Ventures—the tribe's economic development corporation—are clear: When tribal members voted last December to approve growing and processing marijuana on the reservation, they did not vote to legalize personal possession.

"We could if we chose—we chose not to," Sampson says. "That was a decision by the tribal membership. We had a referendum, and the tribal members voted for cultivation, extraction, wholesale, retail."

In 2014, the Department of Justice issued the "Wilkinson Memo," which explained how sovereign Indian nations would be treated the same as states if they chose to legalize marijuana.

Since then, several tribes nationwide have attempted to get into the cannabis business, only to have their efforts unraveled by the feds.

In July 2015, marijuana-cultivation facilities were raided on Pit River tribal land at Alturas Indian Rancheria and XL Ranch in Northern California.

In October, federal agents raided an industrial hemp production plant on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, which had thought it was allowed to grow the plant under the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, only to discover that tribal nations weren't included in that bill.

And in November, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota announced plans to use its sovereignty to open a marijuana resort—only to torch its entire crop when it received scrutiny from lawmakers and word of a potential raid.

So what makes Warm Springs tribal members confident it won't happen to them?

Pitt says that being in a state where recreational marijuana is legal makes it difficult to compare the Warm Springs project to others. "In both [Pit River and Menominee], you have a tribe that had some sort of level of county and/or state jurisdiction over them—Warm Springs doesn't have either," he says. "Warm Springs tribal members are the only people who have voted on cannabis twice."

Neither Pitt, Sampson nor any of the half-dozen tribal leaders contacted by WW would comment on the prosecution of Devontre Thomas.

Portland lawyer Bear Wilner-Nugent thinks the prosecution of a teenage Warm Springs tribal member won't derail the tribe's plans to get into the cannabis business.

"This prosecution will be remembered, if at all," he says, "as not only a mistake but an aberration that does not set the pattern for anything else."

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