Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman Ron Allen has championed the tribe’s new cannabis store in part to help fund addiction treatment for the region. (Syd Stone/MEDILL)

In Washington, Some Tribes Turn to Cannabis to Support Health and Healing

By Syd Stone

SEQUIM, WASH. — The Cedar Greens Cannabis shop sits just off of Highway 101, across from the serene waters of the Sequim Bay along Washington’s North Olympic coastline.

The store’s walls and floors are lined with cedar planks, and water flows under an indoor bridge that sits just beyond the entryway. In the center of the shop, customers in search of cannabis find high-concentration resins and dried buds, neatly displayed in well-lit display cases under 17-foot-high ceilings.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe opened the store in October, and Tribal Chairman Ron Allen said he expects sales to quickly become a “big piece” of the tribe’s revenue stream.

“We know from our sister tribes how well they perform,” he said. “Ours happens to be probably the most elegant. We took from everybody else’s structure and design and took the best of each, so we’re very confident that we designed it nicely.”

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is among a growing number of tribes in Washington that have turned to cannabis as a significant revenue source. In Sequim, the tribe for generations relied on enterprises ranging from shellfish companies to a casino to a family health clinic.

Revenue from the new cannabis shop will be used in part to cover addiction treatment programs, including a planned 16,000-square-foot healing center for opioid dependency.

Clallam County saw 101.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in 2017, far higher than the national average of 58.7, according to the CDC.

Cannabis sales pose a unique business opportunity for tribes in Washington.

Tribes on sovereign land do not need state approval to sell cannabis. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in September 2018 struck an agreement with the state that allows sales tax accrued from cannabis-related businesses to remain within the tribe for community improvement.

The compact is modeled after similar agreements with the state that regulate the sale of liquor, gasoline and cigarettes on tribal land, said Mike Smith, manager of Cedar Greens. The shop charges taxes equivalent to the state’s cannabis taxes — a 37 percent excise tax and 8.5 percent sales tax for recreational purchases, which, Smith said, has been vital to the tribe’s economy even in the short time the store has been open.

“Tribes are traditionally underfunded, their people are underserved,” he said, “So tribes rely on their own ingenuity to come up with and create different enterprises to help support and sustain their people.”

Allen said it was critical for the tribe to diversify its economic interests.

“A lot of folks think that your casino is the big dog on the block,” he said. “For many, many years, from the ‘90s into the early 21st century, it was, but now, it’s not anymore.”

More and more tribes in Washington are entering the cannabis industry in recent years because tribes continue to look for business opportunities which will make them competitive in the surrounding economies, said Eric Trevan, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and an expert in Tribal economies.

“I’ve seen how it can truly help, not just generate revenue for the tribes, but how it builds the economy,” said Trevan, who is a Tribal citizen of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Gun Lake Tribe.

When tribal governments decide to enter into the cannabis business, they affirm their sovereignty as independent nations which are looking for ways to support their citizens, he said.

Just 80 miles south of Cedar Greens, the Squaxin Island Tribe has been operating Elevation, a cannabis shop, since 2015.

Mike Ogden, a Squaxin Island tribal member and manager of the shop, said profits go toward critical services in healthcare, education and employment.

“It’s definitely important that we can generate this revenue and help our community, and our people, in that way,” Ogden said.

The store was so successful by its third year that the tribe opened the first tribal marijuana grow site in Washington — Native Sun Grown. The commercial operation spans more than 5 acres and provides cannabis products to Washington’s recreational market. Washington became the first state to legalize marijuana in 2012.

In Sequim, Smith said he’s looking forward to the first summer season. Thousands of tourists will pass the shop along Highway 101, headed to Olympia National Park or farther into Sequim for its annual lavender festival in July.

“We’re on the edge of our seats to see what we can do,” he said.

Debbie Cenziper

Debbie Cenziper is an associate professor and the director of investigative reporting at Medill. She also oversees the Medill Investigative Lab. Besides teaching, Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and nonfiction author who writes for The Washington Post. She spent three years at The George Washington University before joining the faculty of Medill.

Over the years, Cenziper’s investigative stories have exposed wrongdoing, prompted Congressional hearings and led to changes in federal and local laws. In her classes at Medill, Cenziper and her students focus on social justice investigative reporting.

Cenziper has won dozens of awards in American print journalism, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for reporting about human rights and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard University. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 at The Miami Herald for a series of stories about corrupt affordable housing developers who were stealing from the poor. A year before that, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for stories about dangerous breakdowns in the nation’s hurricane-tracking system.

Cenziper is a frequent speaker at universities, writing conferences and book events. Her first book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” (William Morrow, 2016) was named one of the most notable books of the year by The Washington Post. Her second book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” was released by Hachette Books in November 2019.

Cenziper is based on Medill’s Washington, D.C. campus, working with undergraduate and graduate students on investigative stories.