Red Lake Nation to solve opioid problem with (checks notes) marijuana?

Minnesota’s eleven Native American tribes did very well during the 2023 legislative session. It’s not surprising given their $1 million in campaign contributions to the DFL and having one of their own at the top level of state government in Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

Here is a partial list of legislative victories for the tribes in 2023:

  • Undergraduate college tuition is now free for Native American students at all Minnesota State College and Universities. College was already free or close to free for many Native American families, especially at the U of M Morris campus. But now it will be completely free everywhere.
  • The eleven tribes will now receive a new annual appropriation of $35 million from the state known as Tribal Nations Aid. The legislature gave the tribes no direction on how to spend the money but did feel the need to clarify it should not be substituted for reparations to tribal nations, perhaps foreshadowing future legislation. The $35 million will be divided among the eleven tribes with a total population of just over 100,000.
  • The legislature protected tribal gaming this session by gutting the revenue of local charities who rely on electronic pull-tab devices. The tribes have argued in court that some electronic pull-tab games look and act too much like slot machines because the user can automatically “spin” to open an entire ticket at once. Outlawing these games will help keep tribal gaming at the top of the gambling food chain, charities be damned.
  • Speaking of gambling, the 2023 legislature prevented any new sports betting legislation from being passed because the tribes failed to sign off on the proposals. The tribes will continue to protect their monopoly on casino gaming in Minnesota with the help of their allies in the legislature.
  • The legislature closed down the Upper Sioux Agency State Park and transferred the land to the Upper Sioux Community. The transaction will cost $5 million as the DNR tries to replace the amenities of the park in other parts of southern Minnesota.

In addition to this impressive list of legislative accomplishments, the tribes also wrote themselves out the recreational marijuana law. Or more accurately, they wrote themselves into the marijuana business without any of the regulations. Unlike every other state that has legalized recreational marijuana, the Minnesota legislature denied cities and counties the ability to prohibit sales in their jurisdictions, granting this authority only to the tribes. From the bill:

Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions, the state shall not issue a license to any
cannabis business to operate in the Indian Country, as defined in United States Code, title 25, section 1151, of a Minnesota Tribal government without the consent of the Tribal government.

This specific protection from the state along with their sovereign nation status allows tribes to do whatever they want with recreational marijuana. And this week we saw the first tribe announce their plans.

The Red Lake Nation announced this week they will open a recreational marijuana retail location on the reservation, open to members and non-members alike. While all other retail locations have to wait over a year for the new Office of Cannabis Management to write rules and regulations, the tribes will have a healthy head start on the competition.

I know what you’re thinking. Who would drive four hours to buy weed on the Red Lake reservation?  This may only be a temporary challenge. According to an article in the Minnesota Reformer, “Red Lake and other tribes will also be able to operate dispensaries off reservations through compacts negotiated with the administration of Gov. Tim Walz.” Watch for tribal marijuana outlets in the Twin Cities once these compacts are negotiated between the tribes and their allies in the Walz administration.

Beyond the political and business advantage granted the tribes by the legislature, is it really a good idea for them to legalize marijuana sales on reservations? In that same story from the Reformer, Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said marijuana sales will “help the tribe in its fight against the opioid epidemic, and that a share of the revenue will fund substance abuse prevention.”

No, it won’t. Easy access to marijuana will make your opioid problem much worse. And the idea of using revenue from marijuana sales to fund recovery programs is like feeding the hand that bites you.

Look no further than the world’s leading experts on addiction at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Their policy statement on marijuana states that young people using marijuana are five times more likely to report feeling the need to also use alcohol or other drugs.

Minimization of the risks—through expanded legalization and misinformation, propagated by profit-minded commercial interests that began their legalization campaigns many years ago—will have long-term public health consequences that will hurt our most vulnerable, high-risk people the most.

Fourteen people overdosed and died on the Red Lake reservation last year among a population of just over 5,000. The last thing tribal leadership should be doing is making it easier for their young people to access another addictive drug.