An Indigenous American nation is giving Minnesotans an opportunity to buy legal weed years before the state's first licensed adult-use shops open for business.
The Red Lake Nation voted to legalize recreational cannabis last Tuesday, just weeks after Gov. Tim Walz signed Minnesota's new adult-use bill into law. The tribal council's decision will make it legal for adult tribe members to possess and use cannabis and allow tribe-licensed dispensaries to legally sell recreational weed. The new law will take effect on August 1, the same day that the state's adult-use cannabis law goes live.
But although Red Lake has synced up with that start date, the tribe plans to start selling legal weed years before the rest of the state does. Minnesota will allow adults to legally possess and use cannabis starting next month, but statewide retail sales likely won't begin until 2025. State officials still need to finalize their cannabis retail regulations before they can start awarding business licenses, and insiders predict that this process will take another 12 to 18 months.
Unfortunately, this long, slow retail sales rollout is likely to kick off an explosion of unlicensed black market weed shops. This same scenario is currently playing out in New York, where regulators' failure to swiftly open legal retail outlets has encouraged thousands of illegal pot shops to spring up to meet the vast demand for weed. Red Lake's new dispensary could help slow this process by providing access to legal weed before state-licensed dispensaries can open.
Tribal Secretary Sam Strong told MPR News that expanding access to cannabis could also help curtail the rising popularity of fentanyl, which “has been taking a deadly toll in our community.” Strong added that the new dispensary will also provide “an investment opportunity for the tribe to provide tested product to individuals that want to purchase it.”
Red Lake Nation already has years of experience growing legal cannabis. The tribe voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2020 and opened Minnesota's first tribe-owned medical cannabis dispensary shortly thereafter. The tribal council wisely decided to expedite the rollout of legal sales by allowing their existing dispensary, NativeCare, to start selling recreational cannabis to any adult 21 or older, regardless of their tribal affiliation.
Strong told MPR News that NativeCare customers who are not Red Lake members will still be fully protected under both tribal and state law. Strong is encouraging non-tribe members to be “as respectful as possible to our people and our laws and try to appreciate who we are as a people.”
The new dispensary won't be convenient for everyone, though. Red Lake is located in northern Minnesota, about a three hours’ drive from Duluth and four hours from the Twin Cities. Other Native nations could potentially expand cannabis access throughout the state, however. Federally-recognized Native American nations have the legal right to establish their own cannabis laws, and Minnesota's adult-use law also allows state officials to negotiate cannabis compacts with local Native nations.
A handful of Native nations in New York, South Dakota, and other states have also used their sovereign authority to open adult-use dispensaries. Many other tribes, including Minnesota's White Earth Nation, have set up their own medical marijuana programs as well.
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