The state’s second Native American-owned pot shop, Agate Dreams, opened yesterday in a nondescript building on the Suquamish reservation. As I drove past a sign for the grave where Chief Sealth rolls over every time we say “Seattle,” I found myself wondering how big of a deal this really was, given that we’ve already got tons of retail pot shops in Washington.
When I got to the store and talked to members of the Suquamish tribe—who are all rightfully jazzed about it—I realized that it’s very important. Why? Because it’s not just about pot, it’s about tribal sovereignty, economic development, the war on drugs, job creation, and all sorts of other issues.
A couple tribal members came up with the idea after taking a business management course in which they were tasked with presenting ideas for new tribal business ventures. “Their pitch was recreational marijuana,” said Calvin Medina, Agate Dreams’ store manager. “That kind of sparked the question of, ‘Can we get into this? Or should we?’ So we started doing some research.”
Enter Rion Ramirez, the general counsel for Port Madison Enterprises, the tribe’s economic arm. He was instrumental in doing the research to determine whether the Cole and Wilkinson memos—the US Department of Justice proclamations on marijuana enforcement in states and on reservations, respectively—would allow the tribe to join the marijuana business, and in working with the state and the tribal council to reach an agreement allowing the tribe’s pot shop to operate.
While Ramirez acknowledged that “the tribe would not have legalized marijuana but for Washington state legalizing it,” the agreement allows tribes to operate their own marijuana business largely according to their own rules. The main concession to the state is that the tribe charges the same 37 percent marijuana excise tax that everyone else does. They also have their own sales tax of about 8.2 percent, ensuring that their prices don’t undercut existing pot retailers. But all that tax money goes to the tribe.
That agreement is important because it represents both an economic and political win for the tribe. As Robin Sigo, a member of the Suquamish Tribal Council, put it, “It was something that was possible, it was something that was potentially profitable, and it was another chance for us to strengthen our sovereignty.” How does reaching an agreement strengthen the tribe’s sovereignty? Again, I’ll turn it over to Sigo:
It strengthens the government-to-government relationship between the tribe and the state government. It basically says, ‘You might be the state and you have said that marijuana is legal here, but we’re not going to apply as a business and get a business license from the state.’ That wouldn’t make any sense for us. We worked to negotiate a compact with the state that was an official government-to-government relationship, and to look at making sure we got to keep the tax revenue because we’re operating [marijuana businesses] here and the tax revenue should come to us. It’s more money that goes into essential government services for us. It took two years to get to this point, and the fact that we’re here at this point is amazing. We’ve gotten to take a stand for other tribes in the state and country. As it gets legalized in more and more states, more and more tribes are going to be having this opportunity, and we’re glad to lead.
Medina echoed those sentiments, saying, “We want to prove to the state and to the rest of the country that we can run this just as well as every other operation. We’re not trying to get around any particular rules or regulations. We just want to compete like everyone else. If the first two tribes in the country that pull this off do this wrong, that means the other 574 tribes in the country aren’t gonna have a shot at it.”
Indeed, their goal was to partner with the state’s system, not work around it, Ramirez said. And Medina mentioned that the tribe might choose to grow and export its own cannabis down the line, and that matching the state’s regulations and being up to speed on BioTrack—Washington’s state-mandated traceability software—would facilitate that.
Prior to the Suquamish’s venture into the pot business, it was illegal to possess or consume marijuana on the reservation. Legalizing pot statewide didn’t change tribal law, but attitudes on pot shifted recently.
“The question we usually get asked is, ‘How do you guys square it with the fact that you’re anti-drug but you’re opening a marijuana shop?" said Sigo. “We did have a number of community meetings about it, and out of the three different community meetings we had I think we only had two people who said, ‘No, absolutely not, don’t do it, it’s a gateway drug.’ We kind of used that opportunity to talk about the myth of the gateway drug. The idea that it’s a gateway drug is not accurate. A lot of elders came out in support of it. A lot of them have personal friends or family who’ve used it medicinally, and it’s worked really well.” The council passed an ordinance legalizing marijuana unanimously.
The pot shop, in addition to creating 10 to 12 new full-time jobs with full benefits, also continues a tradition of funding robust government services via business enterprise. “Our tribe has done really well having things like the casino and the gas stations,” Sigo said. “Those kind of things have made it so we experience a really low unemployment rate here. We have low rates of being on DSHS and welfare. We have a lot of job opportunities here, we pay for all of our tribal members to go to college. We pay full tuition, books, travel expenses, and monthly living expenses. We have our own school, a 6-12 program called Chief Kitsap Academy. We also pay for full mental health counseling or substance abuse counseling.”
That last item is especially important. Heroin addiction is a significant issue on the reservation. Ramirez said, “In any community that is socioeconomically disadvantaged you have a problem with that. The Nancy Reagan era of “say no to drugs” really didn’t accomplish anything.” Sigo, who worked in behavioral health services for the tribe before becoming a council member, said, “It seems odd to be on this side of it but I was also there to see the most destructive drugs on our reservation. Not just our community, but everywhere across the nation is struggling with heroin, Oxy's, alcohol, meth, and those kind of hardcore drugs. And so our tribe has really taken a stand against those.”
Part of that stand, she said, is “taking more of a harm-reduction approach to it, where we’re informing the community, we’re informing kids, and we’re informing families about what can happen if you do [drugs]. ‘Here are the facts about different drugs’ as opposed to ‘Just say no, just say no, just say no.’” It’s fitting that pot, once the target of the war on drugs, is now helping finance programs that might actually win it.
Agate Dream is located at 15915B State HWY 305 NE in Poulsbo. They're open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to midnight and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.