Tribal Sovereignty & Cannabis

Mendocino County, located in Northern California, is well known for its beautiful coastlines, lush redwood forests, and… the growing medical marijuana trade. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 and in 2010 Mendocino began an experimental program in an attempt to regulate the cultivation of marijuana for medical use.


A marijuana farmer could obtain a permit to grow up to 99 plants on five acres for a $1500 fee.[1] A few years prior to this, the tribal council of Round Valley Reservation (located in Mendocino County) also saw the need to regulate their own marijuana traffic, which led them to pass an ordinance in 2007 allowing tribal members to grow up to 33 plants each. Despite the fact that the Round Valley Reservation has tribal sovereignty to mandate their own laws the federal government continues to find ways to step in. For instance, federal agents and sheriff’s deputies raided the Indian Reservation in the fall of 2010, seizing marijuana plants and arresting growers.[2] This brings the question of whether or not the federal drug enforcement administration have jurisdiction to arrest tribal members who are not committing a crime by the laws of the reservation.

Round Valley Reservation is currently the home of seven American Indian Tribes. After the Gold Rush attracted emigrants into the interiors of California, clashes between new settlers and Indians began to escalate. Since the American government could no longer push Native Indians further west outside of California, three commissioners were assigned to create a solution to the “Indian Problem.”[3] In their address to the public in 1851, they sought peaceful relations between whites and Indians arguing that the Indians would be a source of cheap labor.[4] By 1860 a 25,000 acre reservation in Round Valley had been established and confirmed by President Grant in 1870.[5] Unlike other reservations established in the United States, those for California Indians gave few annuities and thus forced them to adopt the wage labor system for survival. William Bauer Jr. illustrates that prior to 1929 Indians experienced three stages of adaptation to the new labor system. In the beginning labor was exchanged for basic necessities, followed by cash wages, and then the continuation of wage labor after the General Allotment Act in 1887.[6]

Subsequently, the United States recognized Indian Nations as sovereign entities through the Indian Re-Organization Act of 1934. According to Section 16, members can elect their own council “and may adopt an appropriate constitution and bylaws which shall become effective when ratified by a majority of vote of the adult members in the tribe…”[7] The Indian Re-Organization Act was further supported by the Indian Self Determination Act in 1975 and the Sovereign Immunity Act in 1978. Despite their recognition as sovereign nations tribes continue to struggle with economic development.

Round Valley, like most reservations in the United States, is located in a remote area with limited opportunity for economic investment and development. Yet cultural subsistence is dependent on the tribal members’ ability to acquire the economic means to provide sustainability. Just the fact that tribes must continue to adapt to new labor systems and economic development demonstrates that Bauer’s claim about the significant changes in labor systems during the reservation’s first eighty years also applies to more recent trends. The Comprehensive Economic Development Report of 2010 for Round Valley Indian tribes demonstrates the impact that population growth and the remoteness of the reservation from economic centers have had on the community. At the time of the report unemployment was at 43% and contributed to the substandard housing many tribal members lived in.[8] Prior to the 1990’s, members relied on the timber industry for labor opportunities until the closure of the Louisiana Pacific lumber mill in 1991. Many were forced to seek alternative sources for economic subsistence.

Although the 2010 Economic Development Report does not advocate the production and selling of medical marijuana, it does point out the economic potential produced by such crops. The output of marijuana grown in California grosses over 14 billion dollars each year making it the number one cash crop.[9] Those who choose to harvest the plant can make up to $40 per hour! Due to the lack of regulation, the DEA estimated that 70% of the marijuana crop cultivated in Mendocino County are operated by Mexican Cartels.[10] According to the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, "More than 46 percent of the marijuana plants eradicated in 2010 were eradicated from public and tribal lands."

In an attempt to gain control over the production of marijuana, the Round Valley Council passed an ordinance in 2007, legalizing the growth of 33 plants per tribal member. Round Valley President Kenneth Wright explains that the council was at first reluctant to enact the ordinance until several people were murdered due to trade practices on the reservation.[11] Not only does the tribal law help to regulate the commerce, it also gives the tribe the ability to enforce where and how marijuana could be grown in order to lower the impact on the environment.


Despite the fact that the tribal members created a law legalizing the cultivation of marijuana, in September 2010, the DEA and local law enforcement seized fourteen gardens and arrested over forty-two people on the reservation.[12] One witness explains, “They come every year, but this time it was 100 times worse, over 50 arrests, all our medicine gone. The Reservation was hit hardest. The town is devastated. We are already very poor and now what little we had has been taken.”[13]

If tribal sovereignty exists, does the federal government have the authority to make arrests on reservations if no law is broken? Even if non-tribal individuals step onto reservation land, are they not subject to tribal laws? How is growing or selling marijuana on reservations, if legalized by the tribe, different than individuals gambling at casinos? Although cannabis may not have a historical precedent within the Round Valley Tribes, members have adapted themselves to the new economic development in the cultivation of this cash crop as a way to sustain their social and cultural existence on the reservation.

[1] Michael Montgomery, “Mendocino Snuffing Medical Marijuana Experiment,” KQED, Feb. 3, 2012.

[2] Mary Callahan, “Round Valley Marijuana Raids Yield 42 Arrests” The Press Democrat, Oct. 1, 2010.

[3] Albert L. Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1988), 135.

[4] “Address of the Indian Agents,” Sacramento Transcript, Volume 2, Number 71, January 17, 1851.——

[5] Kevin, Adams and Khal Schneider, “’Washington is a Long Way Off’: The ‘Round Valley War’ and the Limits of Federal Power on a California Indian Reservation”, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Nov 2011), 562.

[6] William J. Bauer Jr. “’We Were All Migrant Workers Here’: Round Valley Indian Labor in Northern California, 1850-1929,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No 1 (Spring 2006), 46, 57.

[7] The Indian Re-Organization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act) June 18, 1934

[8]“Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy 2010,” Prepared for Round Valley Indian Tribes by The Center For Applied Research (December 31, 2010), 3.

[9] Ibid, 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Scottie Lee Meyers, “Debate About Growing Pot on Reservation Continues” Two Rivers Tribune, June 28, 2011.

[12] Mary Callahan, “Round Valley Marijuana Raids Yield 42 Arrests” The Press Democrat, Oct. 1, 2010.

13] Pebbles Trippet, “Worst ever’ raids hit Covelo CA and Reservation” West Coast Leaf, Dec. 8, 2010.

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