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Picuris Pueblo pot production uprooted

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

PICURIS PUEBLO – Picuris Pueblo’s budding medical marijuana production operation went up in smoke when federal officials raided its small-grow operation late last year.

“They took the plants and threatened to prosecute us,” Craig Quanchello, governor of the state’s smallest pueblo, said while sitting at a table in his tribal office, a buffalo head peering down from the wall behind him. “They told us we were a federal agency.”

Thirty-six marijuana plants – what Quanchello called a “test run” – nearly ready for harvest were uprooted and destroyed by federal agents.

The governor said the plants were being grown in protected facilities, both indoors and outdoors, and included a mix of strains. Some plants contained higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical that gets people high, while others were cannabidiol (CBD)-dominant, non-intoxicating and known to have therapeutic effects, including use as a treatment for childhood epilepsy.

The raid resulted in no arrests.

This was no secret grow site hidden in the hills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Gov. Quanchello said the pueblo had been totally transparent with state and federal agencies about what they were doing and where they were doing it.

“We even told them if they ever want to raid us, here’s where you need to go,” he said of the previously unreported raid.

Contacted with questions about the raid, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque declined to comment.

“The matter about which you inquire was investigative in nature and, as a matter of policy, Justice Department agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, do not comment on investigative matters,” it said in a statement emailed to the Journal.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it had talked to tribal officials about marijuana on pueblo land and had warned them that what they were doing was illegal.

“Representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office have, at various times, discussed with leaders of New Mexico Tribes and Pueblos, including Picuris Pueblo, that marijuana cultivation remains illegal under federal law, and that this Office will not enter into any agreement to abstain from enforcing federal marijuana laws on tribal lands,” it said.

Quanchello’s office walls are also dotted with clippings of the work of Santo Domingo Pueblo cartoonist Ricardo Caté, whose often ironic “Without Reservation” comic strip frequently illustrates the contrasting perspectives of Native Americans and the dominant culture, which many times is represented by a Gen. George Custer-like caricature.

“It reminds me of Custer and having white people telling you that you can’t do this,” Lt. Gov. Wayne Yazza Jr. said, reflecting on the raid. “It’s just making things harder on us and it pisses you off at the same time, because this is our land.”

But it’s also land that the federal government holds title to, held “in trust” for the pueblo.

And while New Mexico is one of 31 states where medical cannabis is sanctioned, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

“Everyone thinks that we’re sovereign and we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case,” said Yazza, noting that even the larger pueblos and Indian reservations across the country cannot operate their casinos without the blessing of the state and federal governments.

A small dot on the map, Picuris Pueblo is located in the picturesque mountains of northern New Mexico about 20 miles south of Taos. There are roughly 300 tribal members.

Effective for addictions?

Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello speaks to the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee about changing laws to regulate medical cannabis at a hearing at the Roundhouse last week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Quanchello, who last week spoke in favor of changing laws regulating medical cannabis before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said there is widespread support for the use of medicinal cannabis on the pueblo. He said tribal leaders believe that it could be an effective way to treat alcohol and opioid addiction, problems that have not escaped the pueblo.

“We’ve seen the effects of alcohol and opioids first hand,” he said.

But New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher has declined to add opioid dependence to the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. That’s despite the recommendation of the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board and a supportive 2017 University of New Mexico study. “I cannot say with any degree of confidence that the use of cannabis for treatment of opioid dependence and its symptoms would be either safe or effective,” Gallagher said in a statement in September.

Quanchello said the Department of Health has refused to talk to Picuris officials about licensing them to grow medical cannabis, despite reports of a low supply.

“They won’t even come to the table. They say it’s illegal to do it on federal land,” he said.

Asked for comment, a DOH spokesman provided a statement to the Journal.

“The growth and harvesting of cannabis in Indian Country raises complex cross-jurisdictional issues, including issues concerning the application and enforcement of Federal controlled substances laws,” it said. “In any event, the licensure application process for the Medical Cannabis Program is currently closed, which means we are not accepting applications or licensing new producers at this time.”

‘The perfect candidate’

Gov. Quanchello is quick to credit predecessor Picuris officials for the pueblo’s efforts to start up a medical marijuana operation. “We put a lot of energy and a lot of thought into it,” he said. “If we do it right, it pushes out the black market.”

Quanchello said the pueblo was doing it right before it was raided. “We documented everything from seed to sell,” he said, though the pueblo never had an opportunity to sell any of it.

There is little economic development to be found at Picuris. The pueblo’s biggest business enterprise is its ownership of the Hotel Santa Fe in Santa Fe. It also has a smoke shop on the reservation. Construction of a travel center on N.M. 75, which will include a Subway restaurant, is also underway.

Picuris Pueblo installed a 1-megawatt solar array on pueblo land last December and has plans to add another. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A pueblo-owned 1-megawatt solar array went into operation last December, but the governor says its not intended to be a money-maker. Instead, it serves to reduce electric bills for the 110 or so homes on the pueblo. Similarly, the pueblo also manages its own buffalo herd from which tribal members can procure meat at discounted prices.

The governor said that while the pueblo has hopes of growing medical marijuana, and selling it in and outside the pueblo, they aren’t doing it to make money.

“We started to grow it with the intent of lowering the cost of the medicine or therapy for those who need it,” he said. “The intent was to make it more affordable; that was the initial driver.”

The governor said the cost per gram of medical marijuana in New Mexico is roughly $10, compared to about $3 per gram in Colorado.

Quanchello said Picuris Pueblo is “the perfect candidate” for a legal pot-growing operation.

“We’re farmers by nature,” he said of the Picuris people. “We have the land, we have the water.”

Asked if the pueblo’s proximity to the hippie communes that grew out of the Taos-area counter-culture movement of the 1960s and their neighbors’ penchant for smoking pot had any influence on the tribe, Quanchello suggested that marijuana had a presence on the pueblo long before any hippies showed up.

Picuris Pueblo used to be a trading hub – “like a Walmart back in the day,” the governor said.

“Historically, they’ve found seeds here,” he said, adding that parrot feathers and seashells are other items found on the pueblo were brought by trade partners.

‘We had nothing to hide’

Gov. Quanchello says the tribe had been relying on guidelines set forth in two U.S. Department of Justice memorandums written during President Obama’s administration.

The August 2013 Cole Memorandum, named for its author, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, represented a significant shift in policy with regard to prosecution of federal marijuana laws. The memo said that given its limited resources, the Justice Department would not enforce federal marijuana prohibition so long as “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana” were in place.

The memo, sent to U.S. attorneys nationwide, laid out a set of eight new law enforcement priorities for prosecutors to follow. Among them were preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors and keeping money from the sale of pot sold on the black market from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Notably, the last of the listed priorities was preventing the possession and use of marijuana on federal land, which includes tribal lands. The memo also states that “nothing herein precludes investigation or prosecution, even in the absence of any one of these factors.”

A year later, another DOJ memo, this one by Monty Wilkinson, director of the Executive Office of United States Attorneys, specifically addressed marijuana issues in Indian Country.

This memo came in response to requests from tribes to clarify the enforcement of the Controlled Substance Act on tribal lands. Wilkinson wrote that effective enforcement of marijuana laws in Indian Country requires consultation with tribal partners and flexibility to confront public safety issues.

“Each United States Attorney must assess all of the threats present in his or her district, including those in Indian Country, and focus enforcement efforts based on that district-specific assessment,” it says. This directive goes on to reiterate that the eight priorities outlined in the Cole Memo would guide enforcement efforts, “including in the event that sovereign Indian Nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country.”

The memo says that when evaluating enforcement activities, each U.S. attorney should consult with the tribes on a government-to-government basis.

Gov. Quanchello said the tribe was open about what they were doing when it started growing pot.

“We were being transparent. We had nothing to hide,” he said.

It’s unclear who ordered the raid.

Former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico Damon Martinez stepped down in March 2017. His successor, John Anderson, was sworn in last February. In between, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo that rescinded the Cole Memo.

“That changed the game for everyone,” Quanchello said.

Not giving up

The raid on the pueblo’s grow operation wasn’t the end of it. The governor said New Mexico State Police stepped up saturation patrols.

The governor said Picuris had started a list of prospective medical marijuana patients on the pueblo.

“Guess what that list becomes now?” he asked. “A target list.”

But Quanchello said he didn’t want to talk about how tribal members had been treated. He said Picuris Pueblo is focused on what needs to be done to make a medical marijuana program happen.

“We want to change the law first. That’s what we need to work on,” he said.

There is growing support for marijuana in New Mexico and across the country. An Albuquerque Journal poll conducted by Research and Polling and released in September showed that 60 percent of likely proven voters surveyed said they would support a bill to legalize, regulate and tax sales to adults 21 and over, while 32 percent were opposed. That compares to a 2014 Journal poll that showed 50 percent support for legalization, with 44 percent opposed.

Department of Health statistics show that, as of Sept. 30, enrollment in its medical cannabis program was at 58,782 patients – up from 48,861 a year earlier – a 20 percent increase in patients in just one year.

Quanchello said he’s hopeful things might change after next week’s elections. The pueblo is endorsing Michelle Lujan Grisham for governor.

“She’s been open to sitting down at the table,” he said.

Quanchello said the pueblo’s goal is to obtain a license to grow medical cannabis.

Despite the raid, Picuris is not giving up.

“We’ll get it going again,” Quanchello said with confidence.

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