The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in Northern New York is poised to open the state’s first ‘legal’ marijuana shops, potentially beating non-Indian nation weed retailers to the market by at least a year.
The state’s first legal sales of marijuana could take place sometime soon on the St. Regis Mohawk (Akwesasne) territory, which sits along the U.S.-Canada border near Hogansburg in Franklin County. The Mohawks are the first Indian nation in New York to take such a step, although a Long Island tribe is also working on it.
New York state legalized adult use recreational marijuana on April 1. The law immediately allowed those over 21 to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana. But the state can’t issue licenses for businesses, including retailers, until it staffs the agency and control board that will write the regulations. That process is currently at a standstill.
The St. Regis Mohawks late last month adopted their own tribal ordinance legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use. The ordinance went further than the state’s law by setting up rules for growing and processing marijuana and licensing retail shops. Everything from “seed to sale” must take place on tribal territory.
The Mohawks’ plan is to license tribal entrepreneurs, rather than running the businesses itself.
The tribal council already has received more than a dozen applications for marijuana licenses, which will be reviewed and issued by a tribal cannabis control board. No licenses have yet been issued, and the tribe has not announced a timetable for doing so. The Mohawks, meanwhile, are taking legal steps to shut down some unauthorized (unlicensed) marijuana shops on the U.S side of the Akwesasne territory.
The tribe has acknowledged its authorized cannabis businesses could be operating ahead of the state’s, under tight controls to ensure safety and generate licensing fees.
“We want to ensure that our community is prepared to utilize this opportunity to support our local entrepreneurs’ efforts to help diversify our local economy and support community programs and services through tribal licensing fees,” the tribe said in a statement.
The state hasn’t got that far.
The state Legislature ended its official 2021 session in June without receiving nominations from the governor’s office or acting on appointments to the Cannabis Control Board or hiring staff for the new Office of Cannabis Management. Unless lawmakers hold a special session later this year, that could push the issuing of licenses into late 2022 or even 2023.
The action by the St. Regis Mohawks could put pressure on lawmakers to reconvene, said Karl Sleight, a lawyer specializing in cannabis law for the Harris Beach law firm. Some lawmakers say there has been progress.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a year or two before the state issues licenses,” Sleight said. “There’s the likelihood of a special session in the near future, and the state could make those appointments.”
Failing to move ahead on the issue “doesn’t reflect well on the state,” Sleight said. “They’re losing ground in the burgeoning cannabis industry compared to other states, and, as we see, to tribal businesses.”
The Mohawks appear to be the first Native American nation in New York to adopt their own marijuana regulations, although the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island has announced plans to open marijuana sales some time this year.
Both are ahead of other New York Indian nations.
The Onondaga Nation near Syracuse will not authorize marijuana businesses on its territory, said the nation’s general counsel, Joe Heath. The Oneida Indian Nation, whose territory spans Oneida and Madison counties, is still reviewing the issue, but has not come to a decision, said Joel Barkin, the nation’s vice president for communications.
Western New York’s Seneca Nation of Indians, which has previously indicated it would be interested in pursuing the marijuana business, has not announced its plans. Neither has the Cayuga Nation in the Finger Lakes.
The ability of Indian nations to set their own rules and laws is rooted in their sovereign status. Nations like the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe are federally recognized.
But it’s still complicated, Sleight notes. For one thing, marijuana is still considered an illegal drug under federal law and can’t be carried across state or international borders.
But once the St. Regis Mohawk shops are open, some New York residents will be making the trip to the territory to purchase marijuana.
Sleight advises potential customers to remember the details of the new law, including the limit on personal possession. And there are still laws that prohibit the sale and distribution of larger amounts.
“So there’s an issue of quantity you have to deal with,” he said. “If you have more than 3 ounces and you’re not on native soil, then that’s an issue. If you have less than that in New York, it doesn’t matter where you got it.”
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Got questions about marijuana in New York and what legalization means? Send them to Don Cazentre at [email protected] or Kevin Tampone at [email protected]. We’re going to spend the next few months (years?) trying to answer as many as we can.