Audience members look on at a February 2015 marijuana conference for tribal governments considering whether to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use in Tulalip, Wash. Representatives of Indian tribes from across the U.S. gathered to discuss pot issues. (Elaine Thompson, The Associated Press)

Exclusive: National Indian Cannabis Coalition aims to bring tribes together

America’s first Indian-focused marijuana trade organization will launch Tuesday when the National Indian Cannabis Coalition debuts at a reservation economic summit in Las Vegas, The Cannabist has learned.

The NICC’s official launch is yet another sign of the excitement surrounding tribes’ newfound ability to legalize and regulate on-reservation marijuana, per a Department of Justice memo released in December.

The NICC will announce its launch at RES, a.k.a. the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development trade show, in Nevada on Tuesday. The company’s mission, according to its new website, is “to inform and educate tribal leaders on the emerging regulated cannabis markets from an entrepreneurial and operations perspective.”

The Cannabist spoke with NICC co-chair Allyson Doctor, a health care professional and member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, in advance of the organization’s launch.

The Cannabist: Why is there a need for an Indian-specific trade group for the marijuana space?

Allyson Doctor: We’ve seen a need in Indian country, and to be able to act as a resource in a space that didn’t have anybody there just yet — that’s big. This is a huge opportunity, and we really wanted to make sure tribes had access to educational resources in this space. If they choose to go down this road, we want to make sure that they’re successful.

Cannabist: What are tribes curious about right now?

Doctor: There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of questions about regulation and policy and how tribes will work with their district attorneys and how they’ll be able to leverage this opportunity because it’s not the kind of opportunity that comes about very often.

Cannabist: What makes you and your partners the right people for this job?

Doctor: Our partners started in this industry a little over a year ago. We have a state license in Nevada, and at the end of last year the Department of Justice came out with a memorandum that opened discussion to tribes talking about the regulation of cannabis on sovereign land. Before that this wasn’t being discussed. Since that time there’s been a spike in interest in cannabis cultivation on Indian country. In this market we felt that we had the opportunity to be a part of this discussion.

It’s a complicated industry, but we’ve been through the development and application process and understand the rules and regulations — and having had that experience, we felt strongly that we had an opportunity to present ourselves as an educational resource for tribal leaders, to fill a space we didn’t see anyone else in just yet. We also wanted to make sure that tribes had access to be successful. It’s a big investment in a quickly emerging market, and there are lots of layers in the process — financing, designing, building and constructing a profitable cannabis cultivation and manufacturing enterprise.

Cannabist: Why should tribes consider signing up with the NICC?

Doctor: It’s our hope that leaders choose to join our coalition because there’s a lot of power if we work together.

Cannabist: You mentioned having a state license in Nevada. What will be your medical dispensary’s name?

Doctor: It’ll be Mountainside Farms in North Las Vegas. We’re in the process of building a cultivation, and we have several months until it’s completed. We hope to open in the fall.

Cannabist: Do you have any clients on board yet?

Doctor: Not yet. We just started the coalition. We’ve been in discussion with several tribal leaders, but this is new territory and everybody’s in the discovery phrase. We’ve attended multiple conferences, and tribal leaders are charged with navigating policy and regulations. They need to figure out if developing the regulated cannabis market on territory is the right decision for their community. It’s certainly not going to be the right decision for every tribe. Some will have the capacity and community support needed, and some won’t.

Cannabist: So where are you in the process of creating a coalition, and do you envision this becoming a consulting agency of sorts?

Doctor: We’re creating our board of directors. Once that’s done, we’ll map everything out. Initially we don’t see ourselves being anything beyond an educational resource right now. Because tribes are in that discovery phase and we don’t think we know all things about all tribes, we really want this to be a collective group of people coming together to assist people.

Cannabist: Do you have anybody sitting on your board yet?

Doctor: Yes, we have our first board member. Demitri Downing is an attorney out of Arizona who also has experience in the cultivation world. He’s done some work with tribes in Arizona and the Southwest.

Cannabist: Have tribes learned any lessons with their casinos that can be applied to their new experiences in cannabis?

Doctor: Yes, we learned that working together to develop policy and regulations that work for all the communities is a good thing. One of the biggest things that needs to be worked through on these territories: Making sure that funding is not inhibited in any sort of way. This is still federally illegal, and there are a lot of considerations for tribal leaders to work through.

Cannabist: Any other lessons from tribes’ casinos?

Doctor: When you compare the two industries, they’re probably equally as regulated and complex. And (these tribes) certainly need to protect their significant monetary investments … You need to have your eyes open to the importance of vetting your partners and protecting your investment. In general, there were tribes that could have used additional resources to avoid their investments going bad.

Cannabist: What will membership costs start at?

Doctor: Initially we’re not charging tribes a membership fee. We truly want to be a resource for Indian country, to allow tribes a place to come together.

Cannabist: So how will you cover your costs?

Doctor: We plan to seek sponsorship from vendors that already have years of solid experience behind them, and we want to be able to vet potential partners for Indian country.

Cannabist: Does it help that you’re a member of a tribe when you’re having these discussions?

Doctor: Trust is an important factor in Indian country, and I have a background in health care leadership and administration. Concerns over public health and safety and quality are something that I would never take lightly. Bringing that into Indian country, protecting Indian country — that’s the reason that we wanted to step into this space.