Tribal cannabis interests raise casino concerns

Tribal cannabis interests raise casino concernsBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

“What’s going on with the Casino? Is it going to be coming into town or not?” – This was the first question of public comment during last week’s Ridgecrest City Council meeting.

Newly-appointed City Manager Ron Strand gave a brief update on the status of the project, but new concerns arose regarding California’s passing of Proposition 64 – which legalized the adult use of Marijuana.

Strand said the property is still in escrow and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe is waiting for it to be taken into trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This will be followed by a state compact and an Environmental Impact Report.

“We still have a little ways to go,” said Strand. “But it’s all just hinging on whether or not the government will take that land into trust and allow the land swap.”

The “land swap” is an arrangement between the tribe and the federal government to exchange the Ridgecrest property for already existing reservation lands in Death Valley if the Tribe can justify that both places fall under historical use for their people.

Member of the public raised concerns that in a Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Council update, the tribe discusses its cannabis project in Death Valley, on the heels of the city’s and county’s decision to outlaw cannabis sales and cultivation within their jurisdictions.

“The cannabis project is up and growing,” Neel read from the newsletter. “The 50,000 square-foot greenhouse is now up and operating. There have been a number of challenges starting up the grow facility. We now have plants in and growing.”

As a Public Law 280 state, California has some jurisdiction to intervene on tribal lands regarding criminal law. According to the newsletter, cannabis is declared to be a civil issue and tribes have full jurisdiction over civil matters on tribal lands.

“We are aware of this,” said Strand. “It is going to be addressed at the first Tribal-City Committee in November. It is not their intent to sell or grow marijuana from the casino.”

He added that the tribe has already agreed to adhere to future municipal code changes, which will include the banning of marijuana cultivation and sale.

But locals have pointed out that the word of a sovereign nation is not the same as legal obligation.

This became evident last year with the tribe declined to under go the California Environmental Quality Act review process in favor of the less expensive, less comprehensive federal National Environmental Policy Act process – despite repeatedly assuring the public that the CEQA process would be followed.

Proponents for the casino argued that the tribe’s Tribal EIR requirements were very similar to CEQA, but many pointed out the potential for abuse in matters where the tribe isn’t legally obligated to keep its word with the city.

“We tried to warn the council of these types of possibilities,” said Neel. “Now we may be getting something we were trying to ban.”

Councilmember Wallace Martin agreed with Neel’s sentiments.

“No matter what is said and what is done, the tribe is free to do as they wish because there’s no one to enforce any of these things,” he said. “The District Attorney can’t enforce it, the sheriff can’t enforce it and the chief of police can’t enforce it.”

Speer said that the committee meeting would include the tribe agreeing not to export water, “but obviously these things need to be addressed in writing.

“Our concerns are your concerns,” he said.

Story First Published: 2017-10-27