PICURIS PUEBLO — Not much is left of a greenhouse where this small but resilient pueblo in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains had once been growing medical marijuana.
Leaning in with all his weight, tribal Sheriff John Salazar pushed open an unwieldy gate Friday to reveal a grow facility left in tatters by time, weather and agents with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs who raided it in 2017.
“It was a great operation,” Salazar recalled as he surveyed a lot now covered with weeds no one would want to smoke.
“It’s heartbreaking for our people … knowing that other [marijuana growing] operations are going, and we’re here on federal land and we can’t do it on federal land,” he said.
Though cannabis remains illegal under federal law, Picuris plans to stage a comeback — with support from the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — following the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico.
Last month, Lujan Grisham signed 10-year intergovernmental agreements with the leaders of two pueblos — Picuris and Pojoaque — allowing them to engage in cannabis industry activities.
“The economic opportunities provided by the recreational and medical cannabis industries are truly game-changing, and sovereign tribal nations should benefit alongside the state,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement at the time.
The intergovernmental agreements will, among other things, prevent federal law enforcement actions on tribal lands, according to the Governor’s Office.
The agreement “allows us to exercise our sovereignty within the state. I think that’s the most critical thing,” Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the feds, but [the agreement is] empowering us.”
Pojoaque Pueblo plans to take advantage of the pact by opening a dispensary, Gov. Jenelle Roybal said last month.
Roybal did not return a message seeking comment late last week but said in March that based on what she has seen in other states where similar agreements have been signed, “the federal government seems not to step in” and disrupt tribal cannabis operations.
Quanchello said Picuris is taking a cautious approach, making small investments in another grow operation and the remodel of an old smoke shop that also houses a tiny casino into a recreational marijuana dispensary on tribal land. The pueblo also is in the process of opening a dispensary on West Alameda and Sandoval streets near downtown Santa Fe. Quanchello emphasized the pueblo is using unrestricted funds, not from the federal government, to invest in recreational marijuana.
At stake, conceivably, are much-needed jobs, more revenue for less-affluent pueblos and the chance for business-minded members to get involved in what is quickly becoming a big revenue stream for New Mexicans and the state government.
The question: What can Native communities do at the intersection of state and federal law?
“It’s not really that complex. It’s pretty straightforward,” said Santa Fe attorney Richard Hughes, who specializes in tribal law and represents Picuris in the agreement with the state.
Then, with a hearty laugh, he added, “It’s just that nobody knows what the answer to the question is.”
History has shown states cannot protect tribal communities from federal law enforcement action. In addition to the 2017 raid, federal agents in September seized nine cannabis plants that a Pueblo man with a medical cannabis card had been growing for his own use. The Associated Press reported the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a letter to the pueblo after the incident that said, in part, “The BIA Office of Justice Services is obligated to enforce federal law and does not instruct its officers to disregard violations of federal law in Indian country.”
Later, a BIA agent seized some cannabis seeds a pueblo official was carrying just off pueblo land, Hughes said. No charges were filed.
Hughes said efforts to get BIA representatives to respond to queries about the matter have gone unanswered. The bureau did not return a call seeking comment.
Ida D’Antonio-Hangen, a recently retired FBI agent who now serves as a criminal justice professor at New Mexico State University, said she’s heard of BIA agents seizing cannabis from people who hold medical cannabis cards on Mescalero Apache land.
“The federal law still says it is a violation to have certain amounts of marijuana,” she said, adding some tribes are seeking legal counsel to “ask how they can grow on their land being New Mexico now allows that.”
“They are wanting to get those permissions, but so far, they are not getting them,” she said.
Ira Vandever, a member of the Navajo Nation, thought he had made it.
When former President Donald Trump signed the 2018 farm bill into law, it approved the farming of hemp products nationwide. So Vandever, an entrepreneur, expected to grow hemp and build a path for other Native Americans to follow in the potentially lucrative field.
But when Navajo Nation authorities ordered an end to hemp production on Navajo land in the wake of the Dineh Benally case — in which Benally was accused of using the new law to illegally grow marijuana — Vandever realized he would have to do more than just move outside the box to keep its operation running.
He had to move outside the Navajo Nation.
He rented parcels of land outside Taos and grants to keep his operation going.
Now, as he contemplates moving into the legal recreational cannabis industry in the state, Vandever dreams of creating a collective of native entrepreneurs to produce, manufacture, sell, transport and market marijuana.
“We could create our own block chains and define what it means to grow hemp and cannabis by indigenous standards,” he said.
Like Vandever, D’Antonio-Hangen believes some tribal communities may try to get around the complexities of the situation by renting or buying land somewhere off their nations to grow and sell cannabis.
“Federal law is always going to trump the state, so you’ll have to grow it outside [your land],” she said. “If you have a Native American who wants to sell it, they’ll have to take their business off the land.”
Ann Rogers, a Santa Fe attorney who has dealt with tribal law, said she knows of some tribes looking to develop cannabis businesses on lands that do not fall under the federal government’s oversight. For the time being, she said, Native communities are hamstrung by current laws and “can’t take advantage of [cannabis] the way other people in the state can.”
Still, she said anyone purchasing cannabis off tribal lands could still get picked up and charged by BIA agents when they return to their nations or pueblos.
Vandever said the problem is further complicated when tribal leaders, such as at the Navajo Nation, decide to impose their own laws or, as in the case of Santa Clara Pueblo, make it clear they will adhere to federal laws regarding the prohibition of cannabis.
Santa Clara Pueblo has been sending flyers to its members warning them that cannabis production, sale and use remains illegal.
Santa Clara Gov. Michael Chavarria said his pueblo has no plans to get involved in the cannabis industry. He said there have been “some issues” with some members growing their own cannabis.
“It is still illegal to cultivate or possess on federal land,” he said, adding such actions also violate the pueblo’s own code. Violators can face fines and imprisonment, he said.
He added pueblo members are “pretty much aware” of the prohibition.
It’s too early to tell what other pueblos might have in mind when it comes to cannabis. Representatives from several pueblos did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for San Ildefonso Pueblo said the tribe had no plans to get into the business.
Onnie Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Nambe Pueblo Governor’s Office, declined to comment.
Vandever said he thinks the state’s tribes need to jointly create a collective and start a new “green evolution” with cannabis and hemp.
“We don’t want to just be the growers,” he said. “We want to package, market, retail, take over all the roles of the middlemen. We want a piece of all of that action.”
As for pueblos that choose to sign intergovernmental agreements with the state, he said they need to ask — and answer — another difficult question.
“How much are they giving away in innovation to the state and [the Regulation and Licensing Department], when in all actuality they should be controlling the entire process?” he said.
Quanchello, the governor of Picuris Pueblo, said it’s unfair for tribes to be prohibited from participating in the new recreational marijuana industry. He said tribes in other states operate marijuana businesses without federal intervention.
“A lot of things can happen, but maybe this time we’ll be successful,” he said. “The [financial] help that this will bring us and the support this will give us … is worth the risk. Without risk, there’s no reward.”
Though the threat of federal law enforcement action remains real, Quanchello said it’s only fair for Natives to be able to participate in the new industry.
“At the end of the day, we’re New Mexicans, too,” he said. “We have land, we have water, and this is something that can change our future.”