Red Lake cannabis sales will open a new chapter between tribe and Minnesotans

Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong stands for a portrait.
Sam Strong, Tribal Secretary of the Red Lake Nation, is a principal organizer of its recreational cannabis program.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

When Red Lake Nation opens its dispensary for sale of recreational cannabis, it will be adding a chapter to its long, nuanced relationship with Minnesotans.

Red Lake Nation is preparing to sell recreational marijuana where it currently sells medicinal cannabis products on Aug. 1, the same day the state legalizes cannabis use.

Minnesotans who make the trek to Red Lake Nation to purchase cannabis may notice Red Lake Nation license plates on cars — a popular expression of tribal sovereignty common among tribal members.

And many non-tribal members already visit Red Lake to enjoy recreational activities there. Tribal Secretary Sam Strong compares the sale of cannabis to the tribe’s casino operations.

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Located in the northern Minnesota town of Red Lake, Strong says the tribe’s dispensary is “accessible for individuals that choose to come to the reservation.”

For Strong, the opportunity to regulate and sell cannabis products is “an investment opportunity for the tribe to provide tested product to individuals that want to purchase it.”

Some Red Lake Nation citizens had pushed for the sale of recreational marijuana a couple of years ago, when a majority of Red Lake band members voted to legalize medicinal cannabis by referendum.

Red Lake Nation citizen Jeanne Thunder says she is a longtime supporter of cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction and chronic pain. With Donald Desjarlait and David Desjarlait, she helped to gather over 2,200 signatures to petition the Red Lake tribal government to legalize recreational cannabis.

Like Sam Strong, she sees recreational cannabis as an opportunity for Red Lake Nation to provide high quality cannabis products.

Thunder says she hopes visitors will feel the way she feels about Red Lake’s cannabis products. “It’s the best,” she said.

For the past several months, the dispensary NativeCare has been filling prescriptions for those participating in the state’s medical marijuana program. Advertising strains of cannabis like Garlic Budder and Caramel Cream, Red Lake Nation’s Instagram quips, “You can’t spell health care without THC.”

NativeCare’s website advertises Red Lake Nation’s medical cannabis products to band members and non-members as “proudly cultivated, processed and packaged on the Red Lake Nation.”

The dispensary’s website allows customers to pre-order and stipulates all sales are final and paid for in cash. The website makes clear everyone who purchases cannabis at the dispensary will be required to present a valid government-issued ID and are limited to 2 ounces per visit.

Only those 21 years and older will be able to purchase cannabis, in accordance with state law.

The dispensary’s website lists reminders to those planning a visit that for the safety of everyone involved, “It is important to note that cannabis use in public spaces or on public property is strictly prohibited. This means that individuals are not allowed to consume cannabis in parks, streets, sidewalks, or any other public areas.”

A cooperative relationship 

As recreational cannabis use is legalized, Minnesota law enforcement officials have emphasized cooperation between tribal and state law enforcement.

Tribal secretary Sam Strong told MPR News non-tribal members will be protected by Red Lake laws while on their lands and protected by state laws upon leaving the reservation.

“Ultimately, we want it to be very controlled and respectful business,” Strong said, “We allow people to come onto our reservation as long as they are respectful of our laws.”

Red Lake Nation is unique among tribal nations in Minnesota as Red Lake collectively owns all lands within the 1,200-plus square mile reservation, as well as an area located in Northwest Angle straddling the U.S. Canadian border.

Tribal police enforce Red Lake Nation’s laws and ordinances. Under exceptional circumstances Red Lake invites federal and state law enforcement onto the reservation to address specific public safety issues.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety officials told reporters on Tuesday they do not have different law enforcement plans tied to recreational cannabis sales on Red Lake.

“The troopers are out, and they are vigilant across the entire state of Minnesota for all things impaired driving related, including cannabis,” said State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer.

Law enforcement in one of two counties adjacent to Red Lake Nation say they already work together on public safety initiatives, according to Chris Muller, a spokesperson for Beltrami County and Emergency Management Director for the Beltrami County Sheriff’s office.

Muller characterizes the relationship between Beltrami County Sheriff’s office and Red Lake Nation as one of “respect and cooperation.”

He recounts a few instances in which Beltrami County Sheriff’s officers have been invited by Red Lake Nation onto the reservation address public safety concerns with non-tribal members. More often, Muller says, if someone has violated a rule or policy of Red Lake Nation, Beltrami County officers coordinate with Red Lake Tribal police at the state-tribal boundary line.

Muller emphasized a respect for Red Lake businesses and stressed the county is only concerned with those instances involving “misuse of cannabis,” as is the case with drugged driving.

“We want everyone — tribal members and non-tribal members — to feel safe and protected,” Muller said.