Selling Marijuana on Tribal Lands, a Legal Gray Area

“I have the right to do what I see fit for my people,” said William Roger Jock, a partner in Good Leaf, a dispensary for recreational marijuana operating without a tribal license.

It doesn’t take long after entering the St. Regis Mohawk reservation to see a glimpse of the future of marijuana sales in the state of New York.

The reservation — a sovereign tribal land in the eyes of the government — currently holds the distinction of hosting New York’s only overt outlets for recreational sales of the drug: nearly a dozen dispensaries offering an array of joints, gummies, edibles and tinctures, which imbue this far-flung, northern-border territory with a shaggy, entrepreneurial energy.

In front of one dispensary, Best Budz, a smiling, neon-green wavy-tube monster welcomes customers to a salesroom housed in a shipping container; another, Six Bears, offers 24-hour-a-day sales, complete with a drive-through window and a work-in-progress “V.I.P. lounge.”

All of which is legal, according to the state, if exceedingly remote: The nearest big city is Montreal, about 70 miles to the northeast, and even visitors from upstate cities like Syracuse face a drive of three hours or more.

But while New York City customers might prefer closer locales in Massachusetts (where recreational marijuana sales began in 2018), the proprietors of the reservation’s new weed dispensaries say they are doing a steady business, capitalizing on delays from state leaders who have been slow to adopt regulations to govern the adult-use sale of the drug. Possession and use of marijuana in limited amounts for recreational use became legal in New York in late March.

As such, the reservation’s dispensariesare seemingly getting a jump-start on what is projected to be a $4 billion industry in New York, as well as continuing a long tradition of using products like tobacco and gasoline — steady moneymakers for the tribe — to create jobs and income.

“This land has a lot to do with being a place to do commerce on,” said William Roger Jock, a member of the St. Regis tribe and a partner in Good Leaf Dispensary. “And I have the right to do what I see fit for my people.”

Good Leaf was the first dispensary to open here, shortly after New York State’s legalization of recreational marijuana, Mr. Jock said. It sells its wares out of a new storefront on Route 37, a country highway west of Plattsburgh, even though it had no tribal license to operate.

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Best Budz is one of a dozen recreational marijuana shops that have sprung up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation this year.
Best Budz is one of a dozen recreational marijuana shops that have sprung up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation this year.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Indeed, not everyone here approves of the new businesses: The St. Regis tribal government maintains that the dispensaries are operating outside the laws of the reservation and robbing the tribe of critical revenue from licensing and sales fees, which underwrite essential services, including education, health care and public safety.

The internal strife on the reservation has grown so intense that tribal leaders have sued in tribal court, after giving the rogue dispensaries 48 hours to close or face being disqualified from any future licensure. The dispensaries have defiantly refused: More stores have opened, and many pot shops on the reservation are now posting signs on their doors warning that tribal compliance officers are not welcome and will be charged with trespassing.

Such posturing has done little to dissipate tension between tribal officials and the dispensaries.

“They’re thinking about themselves and not the overall community,” said Chief Ronald LaFrance Jr., one of three St. Regis chiefs, adding, “And that’s my concern, the lost revenue for the tribe.”

Marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the U.S. government, but it has been legalized for adult recreational use in 18 states, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and for medical use in more than 30. And in recent years, dispensaries have opened on tribal lands around the country, in states including Nevada, Washington and Michigan; in New York, the Shinnecock on Long Island are taking steps to get into the market, as are the Seneca on the state’s western flank.

For their part, the New York State authorities seem to be taking a hands-off approach to the early entrepreneurs on the St. Regis reservation, noting that such businesses are legal on federally recognized, sovereign tribal land.

With state regulations still far from being codified, and the tribal government unable thus far to stop the shops’ spread, the St. Regis dispensaries are operating both in a legal gray zone and with a sense of urgency seemingly not felt until recently in Albany.

“Everyone is scrambling to become a success overnight,” said Charles Kader, a tribe member and local writer who is a friend of Mr. Jock’s.

A rolling greensward dissected by the St. Lawrence, St. Regis and Raquette Rivers, the lands here are known by tribal members as Akwesasne. Wildlife still thrives here — Akwesasne means “the land where the partridge drums” — and the territory straddles the U.S.-Canada border, with overlapping jurisdictions, including tribal law enforcement. Modest homes and abandoned businesses mix, as do Christian and sacred tribal sites.Sign up for the New York Today Newsletter  Each morning, get the latest on New York businesses, arts, sports, dining, style and more. Get it sent to your inbox.

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