did native americans smoke weed

The Tricky Relationship Between Marijuana and American Indians

Winona LaDuke December 19, 2015

“ You have an unmo­ti­vat­ed per­son and you become more unmo­ti­vat­ed on cannabis. I am afraid that the self esteem of our peo­ple is not going to han­dle legal­iz­ing it well.”

—Kevin Shore, White Earth trib­al mem­ber, Gulf War Vet­er­an using VHA pre­scribed med­ical mar­i­jua­na for his chron­ic condition.

“ I think that decrim­i­nal­iz­ing recre­ation­al use would ben­e­fit our peo­ple great­ly since so many of us use it and many have been incar­cer­at­ed for pos­sess­ing it.”

—Mar­tin Rein­hardt, Pro­fes­sor of Native Amer­i­can Stud­ies at North­ern Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty, Mar­quette, Michigan.

It’s time to recon­sid­er the reg­u­la­tion of mar­i­jua­na and hemp on reser­va­tions. One year ago in Octo­ber, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice released a mem­o­ran­dum stat­ing that fed­er­al author­i­ties would no longer pros­e­cute for mar­i­jua­na on trib­al land — even when it is ille­gal in the sur­round­ing state. In that memo Jus­tice Depart­ment Direc­tor Mon­ty Wilkin­son wrote that ​ “ in the event that sov­er­eign Indi­an Nations seek to legal­ize the cul­ti­va­tion or use of mar­i­jua­na in Indi­an Coun­try,” Unit­ed States Attor­neys will essen­tial­ly treat its legal­iza­tion in the same way that the depart­ment does in states like Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton, where the drug is legal, as long as reser­va­tions meet the same guidelines.

Over the last 12 months, tribes from Cal­i­for­nia to New York have legal­ized the drug.

The Pinoleville Pomo tribe, which is locat­ed in Men­do­ci­no Coun­ty in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, one of the largest mar­i­jua­na grow­ing coun­ties in the coun­try, began the first ever trib­al mar­i­jua­na grow oper­a­tion. But in Sep­tem­ber, Men­do­ci­no Coun­ty sheriff’s deputies raid­ed the reser­va­tion, destroy­ing near­ly all 400 of the tribe’s plants. Accord­ing to the sheriff’s depart­ment, the tribe was in vio­la­tion of Men­do­ci­no County’s lim­it of 25 plants per lot. But trib­al lead­ers claim, ​ “ The sher­iff over­stepped his authority.”

In a sep­a­rate case, the Menom­i­nee Nation in Wis­con­sin legal­ized the grow­ing of indus­tri­al hemp, under pro­vi­sions of the 2014 Farm Bill. The low THC, non-psy­chotrop­ic hemp plot was intend­ed to be grown for research pur­pos­es. Act­ing U.S. Attor­ney Gre­go­ry Haanstad told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press that agents ​ “ exe­cut­ed fed­er­al search war­rants on a large unlaw­ful mar­i­jua­na grow oper­a­tion on trib­al land and seized what agents described as approx­i­mate­ly 30 , 000 plants weight­ing a total of sev­er­al thou­sand pounds.” Some of the basis for this raid was that non-Menom­i­nee indi­vid­u­als were involved in the oper­a­tion. Menom­i­nee Chair­man Gary Besaw has stat­ed the tribe will con­tin­ue to work on the res­o­lu­tion to this issue.

Accord­ing to News from Indi­an Coun­try, the Oma­ha tribe of Nebras­ka has vot­ed to look into get­ting into the mar­i­jua­na busi­ness­es and the Seneca Nation of New York has approved a med­ical mar­i­jua­na mea­sure.

Lance Mor­gan (Win­neba­go), a trib­al law expert in Nebras­ka, has stat­ed that the Jus­tice depart­ment memo on the mar­i­jua­na and hemp legal­iza­tion does not actu­al­ly allow tribes to legal­ize mar­i­jua­na. Rather it allows them to work with U.S. attor­neys. And Mor­gan says U.S. attor­neys in many states have been unwill­ing to let tribes move forward.

The fact is that legal­iza­tion on Amer­i­can Indi­an reser­va­tions has become a sticky issue. The mem­o­ran­dum leaves a lot of grey area, espe­cial­ly in the 27 states which have not yet legal­ized mar­i­jua­na in some form. Attor­ney Gen­er­al Cole, for instance, states that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice will retain the right to pros­e­cute indi­vid­u­als who engage in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mar­i­jua­na to minors, and where rev­enue is going to crim­i­nal enter­pris­es, dri­ving under the influ­ence or diver­sion to a state where it is not legal.

While some tribes are look­ing to this as a high­ly lucra­tive busi­ness, oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing the poten­tial chal­lenges of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pot industry.

The eco­nom­ics of pot

I am told that 40 per­cent of my White Earth tribe smokes the herb. The fact is we’re spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars annu­al­ly import­ing mar­i­jua­na from large­ly unsa­vory char­ac­ters onto the reser­va­tion at a great loss to our trib­al econ­o­my. I haven’t done com­plete stud­ies, but, con­ser­v­a­tive­ly, $ 60 , 000 a week is drain­ing from the pock­ets of my fel­low tribe mem­bers into the hands of out­side deal­ers, most oper­at­ing in the Twin Cities. With a lit­tle math, it looks like around $ 3 mil­lion annu­al­ly is leav­ing the reser­va­tion for mar­i­jua­na pur­chas­es. That is com­ing out of trib­al pock­ets — pock­ets in some of the poor­est coun­ties in the state. That is part of our chal­lenge. Could tribes curb that eco­nom­ic drain with a local mar­i­jua­na economy?

Trib­al com­mu­ni­ties would be unable, under the present reg­u­la­to­ry scheme, to sell mar­i­jua­na off reser­va­tion unless the state they find them­selves in a state that has legal­ized mar­i­jua­na. This is the case of the Pineoville Pomo in Cal­i­for­nia, and tribes in states with med­ical or recre­ation­al use. When the state of Min­neso­ta held its infor­ma­tion­al meet­ing on a new med­ical mar­i­jua­na pol­i­cy, reg­u­la­to­ry offi­cials stat­ed that trib­al sov­er­eign­ty would dic­tate grow­ing in that state, but there’s been no word on dis­tri­b­u­tion or sales off reser­va­tion. The ques­tion of a local trib­al econ­o­my in mar­i­jua­na, how­ev­er, is worth some consideration.

Drug wars

Mar­i­jua­na has account­ed for near­ly half of all total drug arrests in the Unit­ed States for the past 20 years, accord­ing to the FBI’s crime statistics.

Wash­ing­ton state data indi­cates that in 2010 , arrests were three times that of two decades before. The major­i­ty of those arrest­ed were white, but Natives were arrest­ed at a rate of l. 6 times high­er than that of whites. The pos­ses­sion arrests, accord­ing to a study, cost Wash­ing­ton State (where recre­ation­al use is now legal) about $ 200 mil­lion between 2000 and 2010 . That’s expensive.

A mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion arrest cre­ates a per­ma­nent crim­i­nal record eas­i­ly found on the Inter­net by employ­ers, land­lords, schools, cred­it agen­cies, licens­ing boards, and banks.

Since 2007 , around 80 , 000 peo­ple have lost their lives as a result of the fight­ing between drug car­tels and Mexico’s armed forces, accord­ing to Reuters. And the Depart­ment of Jus­tice reports that a large por­tion of the U.S. ille­gal drug mar­ket is con­trolled direct­ly by Mex­i­can cartels.

In 2012 , a study by the Mex­i­can Com­pet­i­tive­ness Insti­tute found that U.S. state legal­iza­tion would cut into car­tel busi­ness and take over about 30 per­cent of their mar­ket. Retired DEA offi­cer Ter­ry Nel­son told Vice that legal­iza­tion has affect­ed drug traf­fick­ing and car­tels. ​ “ The car­tels are crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions that were mak­ing as much as 35 – 40 per­cent of their income from mar­i­jua­na,” says Nel­son. ​ “ They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the U.S. now.”

Minnesota’s Native Mob gang has his­tor­i­cal­ly been involved in mar­i­jua­na, as well as a host of oth­er drugs and weapons. While pros­e­cu­tions land­ed many lead­ers of the Mob behind bars in recent years, it is not clear in a state like Min­neso­ta what the effect of legal­iza­tion would be on Native gang activ­i­ty, but it is worth considering.

Addic­tions and more addic­tions on reservations

“ When my moth­er met her sec­ond hus­band (my step­fa­ther), he used to smoke it occa­sion­al­ly. Then he would watch some­thing sil­ly on TV and fall asleep. She didn’t want him to get caught with it, so she insist­ed he only drink. This was a real­ly bad idea, since [alco­hol] didn’t relieve his stress and made him angri­er and more vio­lent. He would start look­ing for some­thing to focus his anger on as he got drunk, which would almost always be one of his stepchil­dren. While drunk, he lost all sense of how hard or long he would beat us. When he was high, I don’t think he ever hit us at all. The law as it stands has prob­a­bly put many chil­dren and spous­es in this posi­tion.” – Anony­mous interview

That’s prob­a­bly a snap­shot of a lot of hous­es. I sur­veyed numer­ous peo­ple on the ques­tion of addic­tions and the impact of legal­iza­tion and got many opin­ions. What we know is that our trib­al com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer from epi­demics of addic­tions. We alter our con­scious­ness for many rea­sons — the pain of his­toric trau­ma, bore­dom, lack of cul­tur­al and com­mu­ni­ty strength, and because we like it. The root caus­es of our dri­ve need to be changed, and that will take long-term work and heal­ing. We need solu­tions to our prob­lems, and we all know that drink­ing a six-pack or smok­ing a bowl is not going to make life bet­ter, though it might help you for­get for a few hours.

Frankly, it’s eas­i­er to get pre­scrip­tion drugs on the reser­va­tion and snort them up your nose than prob­a­bly any­where else in the coun­try. Sam Moose, Com­mis­sion­er of Health and Human Ser­vices for the Mille Lacs Indi­an Reser­va­tion in Min­neso­ta talks about the epi­dem­ic which is claim­ing new vic­tims on his reser­va­tion: babies born addict­ed to opi­ates, both pre­scrip­tion painkillers and ille­gal drugs like hero­in. Accord­ing to Moose, the reser­va­tion is one of the hard­est hit com­mu­ni­ties in Min­neso­ta. Twen­ty-eight per­cent of babies with Neona­tal Absti­nence Syn­drome (NAS) in Min­neso­ta are born to Native Amer­i­cans, even though Native Amer­i­cans make up only about 2 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion. In oth­er words, Amer­i­can Indi­an new­borns are 8 . 7 times more like­ly than white babies to be born with NAS. Add to that Fetal Alco­hol Syn­drome Dis­or­der (FASD), and we’ve got a pret­ty dire sit­u­a­tion for the next gen­er­a­tion. What would mar­i­jua­na do to this?

“ As a researcher of FASD, and a now doc­tor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy. … I tru­ly believe, on a per­son­al, com­mu­ni­ty and soci­etal lev­el that legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na will decrease rates of FASD expres­sion with­in our com­mu­ni­ties,” Melis­sa Goracke, a White Earth doc­tor tells me. ​ “ Access to mar­i­jua­na will decrease women’s use of alco­hol dur­ing preg­nan­cy, which is the most vio­lent ter­ato­gen to brain devel­op­ment, which lasts a life­time. It’s a start and it’s sim­plis­tic, but it’s something.”

That’s an inter­est­ing thought, but many peo­ple remain opposed to ​ “ trans­fer­ring addic­tions.” At the same time, from my lim­it­ed study, mar­i­jua­na use is pret­ty preva­lent on the reservations.

The high­est risk for mar­i­jua­na: The teenage boy

“ It is extreme­ly rare to see kids who are chron­i­cal­ly using pot doing well in school,” Dr. Brett Nien­aber, a fam­i­ly and emer­gency ward physi­cian near Brain­erd, Min­neso­ta, tells me. ​ “ It might have to do with this neu­ro­trans­mit­ter called dopamine. Dopamine is the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter, which is asso­ci­at­ed with the rewards cen­ter of your brain. If you do some­thing well, like get an A, or win a race, you get a good feel­ing and that stim­u­lates the reward sys­tem. Mar­i­jua­na use real­ly stamps out the dopamine.”

A new med­ical study quan­ti­fies this. ​ “ This study sug­gests that even light to mod­er­ate recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na use can cause changes in brain anato­my,” says Carl Lupi­ca, of the Nation­al Insti­tute on Drug Abuse. ​ “ These obser­va­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing because pre­vi­ous stud­ies have focused pri­mar­i­ly on the brains of heavy mar­i­jua­na smok­ers, and have large­ly ignored the brains of casu­al users.”

A team of sci­en­tists com­pared the size, shape, and den­si­ty of the nucle­us accum­bens and the amyg­dala —brain regions that plays a cen­tral role in emo­tion and plea­sure — in 20 mar­i­jua­na users and 20 non-users. Each mar­i­jua­na user was asked to esti­mate their drug con­sump­tion over a three-month peri­od, includ­ing the num­ber of days they smoked and the amount of the drug con­sumed each day. The sci­en­tists found that the more the mar­i­jua­na users report­ed con­sum­ing, the greater the abnor­mal­i­ties in the nucle­us accum­bens and amyg­dala. The shape and den­si­ty of both of these regions also dif­fered between mar­i­jua­na users and non-users.

Mar­i­jua­na can also cause an ear­ly onset of schiz­o­phre­nia in young men, who are genet­i­cal­ly pre-dis­posed. ​ “ If nor­mal­ly you would have got­ten [schiz­o­phre­nia] at 25 ,” Dr. Nien­aber says, ​ “ you will more like­ly get your first psy­chot­ic break at 13 , which is a prob­lem because the longer you have it the more debil­i­tat­ing it is. The prob­lem is that schiz­o­phren­ics and peo­ple who are pre­dis­posed to it are real­ly drawn to drug abuse.”

Men­tal health ben­e­fits of marijuana

There’s clear evi­dence of the ben­e­fits of mar­i­jua­na in the treat­ment and pain relief of glau­co­ma, fibromyal­gia, epilep­sy, rheuma­toid arthri­tis, seizures, PTSD (remem­ber we Indi­ans have the high­est per capi­ta num­ber of liv­ing vet­er­ans of any com­mu­ni­ty) and a host of oth­er med­ical con­di­tions. My friend Kevin Shore suf­fers from Gulf War Syn­drome, and he is strug­gling with a host of seri­ous med­ical conditions.

“ Actu­al­ly they call it rheuma­toid vari­ant dis­ease at the Vet­er­ans Health Admin­is­tra­tion (VHA), because, like in Viet­nam, they don’t want to call it an Agent Orange syn­drome,” Kevin says. ​ “ They tried putting me on mor­phine, oxy­codone, all of that didn’t work well. I found that cannabis was the least harm­ful to my body as the side effects go.”

Because Kevin is being treat­ed by the VHA, he can­not smoke mar­i­jua­na, or take it in any form. So they pro­vide him with dram­nol, a syn­thet­ic form of mar­i­jua­na. While med­ical stud­ies indi­cate that mar­i­jua­na is help­ful in many cas­es, it is clear­ly not a panacea for all illnesses.

Mar­i­jua­na is a med­i­cine. Mar­i­jua­na does not solve all prob­lems. It does not cure every­thing. It is a plant and it is a med­i­cine. As much as our com­mu­ni­ty deals with drug abuse, every­one agrees there is a need to restore our rela­tion­ship to our plant rel­a­tives in a respect­ful man­ner. Indige­nous peo­ples know plants have spir­it and pow­er that need to be addressed with reverence.

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5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used By Native Americans

Although marijuana is certainly at a high right now with the industry booming, the plant dates back thousands of years. Before marijuana was the popular drug and medicine that it is today, cultures all around the world used and consumed the plant in all aspects of their lives. Though there are a number of different tribes, each with different cultures and religious practices, there is evidence that marijuana was consumed by Native Americans in varying tribes.

First, like we do today, Native Americans recognized marijuana’s healing medical powers, “This plant is good for things other than merely making rope. Soaked and softened, the seeds are very good against wind in the stomach… A decoction of the root is good for inflammations in the head or other areas, gout, joint or hip pain, and muscular atrophy.” After recovering from an illness, many people smoked cannabis as well because, “This plant will get you going.” The Native Americans also regarded cannabis as a stimulating agent and psychological aid, fitting with the concept of the peace pipe that those who smoke together make peace. Some claim that the great visionaries packed their sacred pipes with cannabis because smoking increased the intensity of their visions.


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Before cannabis is even popular like nowadays, Cannabis has been used among the Native Americans in all aspects of life, especially for the medical purposes. Learn more here!