Monday’s Hoopa Valley Tribal Council meeting. | Still from video courtesy councilmember Leilani Pole.

Members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe last year voted to rescind a two-decade-old ban on growing marijuana on tribal lands.

But did they know what they were doing?

That was the central question at a heated tribal council meeting on Monday, a meeting that saw tempers flair, accusations fly and, at one point, the council’s sergeant at arms step in to prevent an altercation between two men in their seventies. 

“People are passionate about this,” said Tribal Chairman Ryan Jackson. 

Jackson believes the tribe settled this matter at the ballot box last year, but the council majority at Monday’s meeting begged to differ. They argued that the 2018 measure wasn’t worded correctly. It confused people, they say. And despite vocal, perhaps even hostile opposition from many in attendance, they voted to place a simple question on the tribe’s upcoming June ballot: Should the growing of cannabis be allowed on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, yes or no?

Simple or not, that question isn’t likely to settle the debate, even if it makes it onto the ballot. (Jackson and others say it shouldn’t, and they’re exploring avenues to prevent it.) In the meantime, debates about the cash crop — and it’s hippie-industrial cousin, hemp — rage on.

As with the rest of Humboldt County — and the country as a whole, for that matter — attitudes about weed/marijuana/cannabis have been shifting on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

In 1999, three years after California legalized marijuana for medicinal use, the tribe passed the Marijuana Cultivation Suppression Ordinance, Title 34, which banned cultivation altogether on tribal lands.

But over the intervening years, as more and more states legalized it for medicinal and recreational use, some tribe members began to advocate for repealing the ban. A ballot measure in the June 2016 election sought to do just that, but it failed by a vote of 266 to 363. 

Last year, following a successful signature-gathering campaign, another “Repeal of Title 34” measure made it to the ballot, and this time it narrowly passed, with 313 votes in favor and 293 votes opposed

The problem is that while both the petition and the ballot measure title called for a “repeal” of Title 34, the options presented to voters were to check one box to “amend” the measure or another to keep it as is. “Repeal” versus “amend.” 

“Basically, [voters] did not understand it,” said Byron Nelson, Jr., a member of the tribal council who (to make matters even more contentious) is running against Jackson for the tribal chairman seat. “There was over 100 people who didn’t vote [on that question] because they didn’t understand it.”

Indeed, 101 of the 707 people who cast votes in last year’s tribal election didn’t answer that particular ballot question, though it’s not clear why. Other tribe members say the measure appeared at the bottom of the ballot and thus went unnoticed by some.

Regardless, Nelson said that ever since the election he’s been getting complaints from tribe members who want marijuana to remain outlawed. “They’re seeing what’s going on in Orleans, where the smell is almost overpowering at different times of season,” he said. “They really cherish the beauty of the valley, what we have here. The air is really nice.”

Nelson also brought up concerns about marijuana’s impacts on crime and the tribal youth, and he suggested that the pro-weed camp is just motivated by greed. “They want nothing short of turning Hoopa into the grow capital of Northern California,” he said.

Fellow tribal council member Leilani Pole said money isn’t the only benefit the industry could offer the tribe. She’s the only member of tribal council who voted this past Monday against placing another question on the ballot. (As chair, Jackson only gets to vote in the event of a tie.) And she has had a pro-cannabis stance since she first ran for council more than four years ago.

“I believe deep in my heart that if given the opportunity it would benefit all ages of the Hoopa Tribal membership,” she wrote in a January Facebook post. 

In an interview with the Outpost following Monday’s meeting Pole said a booming marijuana industry could lift tribe members out of poverty, and the plant’s CBD compounds could help with harm reduction for the tribe’s opioid addiction epidemic.

Like Jackson, Pole believes the issue was settled with last year’s referendum, and she thinks the “confusing language” counter-argument is just cover for personal objections. And she believes those objections are moot. She pointed to section 7(f) of Title 11, the tribe’s election ordinance, which says that when a referendum measure is passed by voters, the tribal council is bound by that decision.

Pole and Jackson are appealing to both the tribe’s elections office and tribal attorney to reject the new ballot question. As far as Jackson is concerned, the ban on cultivation has been rescinded. It’s now legal to grow weed on the reservation, and this new ballot question — should it proceed — will have no force of law. Even if it passes it wouldn’t reinstate the ban. 

As for the argument that voters were confused by the difference between “amend” and “repeal”? “I don’t personally buy that,” Jackson said. “That’s burying your head in the ground and not wanting to acknowledge the will of the voters.” 

He said the real disagreement is philosophical.

“There seems to be almost a moral objection” to marijuana, he said. “That’s unfortunate because then you have people who feel they have this higher authority to object to something people want.” But those objections don’t outweigh the law, he argued. “Council members have a lot of authority, but we really don’t have a lot of wiggle room when a measure gets approved by voters.”

Nelson, for his part, said Jackson allowed Monday’s meeting attendees to be rowdy and verbally abusive because most of them were on his pro-marijuana side.

“I first got on the tribal council in 1979, and I’ve been the vice chair for five straight years. … That’s probably the worst I’ve seen it as far as a meeting getting out of hand,” he said. “It really goes against our tradition, where the No. 1 thing is respect.”

Nelson believes that the tribe will eventually open its doors to the marijuana industry, though he thinks it should be regulated. And he said that since last year’s referendum Jackson has done nothing to create such a regulatory framework.

Marceline Norton, a tribal elder and vegetable farmer, said there’s currently a petition circulating in the community asking the tribal council to develop regulations for the industry. Personally, she’d like the ability to grow hemp so she could sell it in local markets. 

“From all my investigation, hemp production is going to become a billions-of-dollars business,” she said. And she’d like the tribe to get a piece of that. But she’s staying out of the debate over fully authorizing marijuana cultivation for commercial purposes. 

Norton agrees that last year’s referendum wording was confusing. “And what the council is proposing is going to cause much more confusion,” she said.

It seems that the more times the question gets asked, the more convoluted matters become. But Nelson reiterated that he considers it only a matter of time before tribe members are allowed to grow on the reservation.

“Eventually it will happen, but right now the different sides are really at each other’s throats,” he said.