Picuris Pueblo strives to preserve its independence through the recreational cannabis industry NM

Picuris Pueblo rises above a western slope in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico.

It is hidden, the only access being the tribal roads of US Highway 75, which connects the towns of Vadito, Peñasco and Dixon to the roads leading to Taos or Española.

This provides residents with a clear view of anyone entering the community. Picuris Gov. Craig Quanchello said the perch is often how residents know when federal police are coming.

“Picuris was discriminated against,” he said. “My people, my community, we have been targets. But the intention is to grow cannabis here.

Two visits stick in Quanchello’s spirit: a 2017 raid by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents that decimated the Picuris med-culture facility and a 2021 raid where a private citizen had his med-culture confiscated.

“We are farmers by nature. Let us grow. We were here cultivating this land before any white man came into this land.

– Picuris Lieutenant Governor Anthony Knitter

These busts happened even though medical marijuana has been legal in New Mexico since 2007. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The United States House of Representatives today passed a measure to decriminalize cannabis nationwide, though the bill still needs approval in the Senate, where approval is uncertain.

Ahead of the launch of the state’s legal recreational marijuana industry on April 1, Picuris and Pojoaque Pueblos signed an intergovernmental agreement with the New Mexico government last week that provides protection and support under the NM Cannabis Control Act.

The intergovernmental agreement shows that pueblos are willing to cooperate with the state on cannabis regulation, even if they choose to operate their own cannabis divisions under tribal governments, NM Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in an interview.

Two Pueblos sign an agreement with NM to start selling legal marijuana. Will this keep the feds at bay?

“You still have to meet our minimum requirements for transparency, testing, public safety, protection of minors, all of that, but we respect that they can do independent regulation,” Lujan Grisham said. “They will set their own rules and regulations, but they can’t diminish, they can only improve or match the state requirements we already have.”

Regardless of the deal, Quenchello said the threat of federal officials enforcing marijuana laws demands a cautious approach to building cannabis businesses on the Pueblo.

That won’t stop Picuris from maintaining its medical dispensaries outside the Pueblo, Quenchello said, or hamper plans to open a hobby store in Santa Fe over the summer.

Picuris also operates a hotel and spa in Santa Fe that is set to become a space where people can smoke or ingest on-site, or get a CBD massage. Quenchello dubbed it “a bud and a breakfast”.

He said the tribe is careful to use only unrestricted funds for its cannabis businesses, which means revenue from operations such as its gas station or hotel — not federal dollars.

“Economic independence is our goal,” Quenchello said. “We are not a tribe of players. We don’t have a large population or a lot of land. We no longer rely on the federal government. We must be self-sufficient. »

As the Picuri use their sovereignty to build an economy from a sector that has been legal in New Mexico since Friday, the presence of federal law enforcement serves as a reminder of their precarious position.

The outdoor cannabis grow space on Picuris Pueblo. Federal agents raided space in 2017 and it hasn’t been used since. (Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

Anthony Knitter is the Lieutenant Governor of Picuris, and part of his responsibility is to manage the checkpoint that limits access according to COVID protocols. The Pueblo is still closed to visitors and anyone invited must do a temperature check and show a vaccination card. Because of the checkpoint, Knitter said the Pueblo is able to know when and how long BIA police are visiting.

He said their presence is sporadic, almost always unexpected, and it’s hard not to think that Picuris is being targeted for the marijuana crackdown.

“They will arrive at two o’clock in the afternoon and stay between five minutes and a few hours,” he said. “Sometimes we won’t see him for three, four days. And then when they come back, they come back at 11 o’clock at night and stay until 2 o’clock in the morning.

Their visits led to dozens of citations for possession, but no actual prosecution in court, Quenchello said.

Take the 2021 incident. BIA agents raided a home in Picuris and confiscated plants from an individual who was legally growing medical cannabis under his license in New Mexico. Even this case was not prosecuted.

This caused the loss of a $10,000 investment and access to personal medication. And that meant the U.S. District Attorney in New Mexico could send law enforcement to Picuris at any time.

“There are no guarantees. It’s still a program that I drug,” Quenchello said. “The BIA threatens to take our jobs, take our plants and take our seeds.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Mexico declined to answer questions about whether the intergovernmental agreement will protect Picuris — or anything else related to the enforcement of marijuana laws on tribal lands.

One thing is clear, the people of Picuris want to grow. But the state of their medical cannabis grow space indicates that there is still a long way to go. Picuris was one of the first tribal communities in New Mexico to take the risk and enter the medical marijuana business in 2015. In less than two years, federal authorities turned north on the highway 75 and raided the facility, shutting down the operation and confiscating more than 30 mature plants, Quenchello said.

The space is now unused, filled with the kind of weed people don’t smoke. A 24-by-24-foot greenhouse still stands, but the plastic shield protecting the outdoor grow is in tatters. A metal trailer that was used for testing and indoor grows is showing rust.

Known as “The Lab”, this metal structure was used for indoor cannabis cultivation and for testing products, soil and water. Federal agents raided space in 2017, rendering it unusable. (Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

After the raid, Quanchello argued with the BIA that stopping cannabis cultivation was hurting Picuri economic growth. He said he was told, “If you need money, we can find you a grant writer.”

Quanchello said the Picuris have their feet in cannabis and will use the market to their advantage, even if the repeal of the federal ban moves slowly. He hopes for a new US attorney, more sympathetic to their efforts, and that Congress will pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana.

“We want to make this medicine available to rural communities,” he said. “Few companies go to the rural country. We want to be that company.

And with this business comes the potential for economic independence – the kind you don’t get with grants.

“We’re tired of being held up and stopped, put on these reservations and telling us what to do and stopping us from moving forward,” Lieutenant Governor Knitter said. “We are farmers by nature. Let us grow. We were here cultivating this land before any white man came into this land.

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About Charles D. Goolsby

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