California state officials have made little progress in the creation of trade access for Native American cannabis companies to the California market.

California cannabis companies may be facing an oversupply issue this year,however, the State’s program has yet to address one potentially significant industry participant – Native American cannabis operations. Since the passing of Proposition 64 in 2016, tribes have been excluded from participating in the regulated California market without first obtaining approval from the State’s licensing authority, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (the “BCC”). While tribes may be allowed to regulate cannabis as they see fit, BCC representative, Alex Traverso states, “they cannot operate in the licensed California market.”2

Currently restricted to trade within reservations, Native American interest in access to California’s market has created a significant push by the State’s tribal community for legislative action. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, 23 of the state’s 109 Native American nations have met with legislatures and lobbyists over the course of the past two years in the hopes of trade access.3

Groups like the California Native American Cannabis Association (“C-NACA”) advocate for the inclusion of Native American cannabis operations, however, they have not received much success. David Vialpando, Executive Director of C-NACA, describes the initial disregard to the tribal organization, following its creation in 2017, recalling:

“We met with state officials and were basically told by folks from the governor’s office, ‘look, you weren’t included in Prop. 64. There is no place for tribes in the California market. Do whatever you want on the reservation. We have no control over that. But there is no provision for the state to allow tribes to participate, or even non-tribal entities on tribal lands.’”4

According to Vialpando, C-NACA was advised to begin work on influencing lawmaking to create an avenue for tribes into the cannabis market. Two bills were introduced, however, as the organization’s director reflects, “Each time those failed because there was a large constituency of stakeholders that were opposed.”5

After countless meetings and the hiring of former Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante (D), some progress for the group seemed apparent. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) was even proposed and scheduled to be heard, when Vialpando was told at a governor’s office meeting that “they didn’t think legislation was needed at all.”Instead, C-NACA was told to waive sovereignty for the state to regulate cannabis operations. “They said just defer all regulatory authority to the state. They wanted the state to regulate all aspects of cannabis on tribal lands and to make sure revenues are shared with the state,” Vialpando stated. “They wanted us to waive our identity. That was a nonstarter.”7

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the proposed bill crumbled following the meeting at the governor’s office, and tribes have worked to address their existing cannabis markets.8

The Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, for example, has modified tribal laws to permit dispensaries on their reservations in the hopes of sustaining businesses. The tribe opened the first dispensary on tribal land in San Diego County, Mountain Source Dispensary in January.Located next to the Santa Ysabel Botanical Facility – a growing facility managed by private cannabis companies that lease the space from the tribe since 2015 – some expect an increase in Native American dispensaries. “We have other tribes that have expressed an interest with doing business with Santa Ysabel’s tenants,” David Vialpando, also head of the Santa Ysabel Tribal Cannabis Regulatory Agency explained. “As predicted, there will be additional dispensaries opening up on tribal lands throughout California.”10

Some tribes are waiting until further legislation is implemented, such as the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. The tribe’s chief administrative officer, Adam Day, stated that tribe officials are monitoring the market, but would not say if they intended to fully participate in the cannabis industry. “I can tell you we don’t have a current business in that field,” Day told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “But we are actively looking at exploring the issue to insure that if we were ever to get into that field that we have the ability to do so.”11

While there remains no clear resolution in sight, advocates hope newly-elected Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will be responsive to the development of a cooperative system to allow Native American entry into the cannabis industry.

For more information on the California Native American Cannabis Association, please click here.


  1. Sheeler, Andrew. “California Is Growing so Much Marijuana It Could Crash the Market.” The Sacramento Bee. March 19, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article228120439.html.
  2. “Tribes at Odds with Calif. Officials over the Right to Sell Marijuana.” The Washington Post. March 24, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/tribes-at-odd-with-calif-officials-over-the-right-to-sell-marijuana/2019/03/24/7c3bad1a-4e8d-11e9-8d28-f5149e5a2fda_story.html?utm_term=.10ba13412e8d.
  3. Jones, J. Harry. “Shut out of the Legal Pot Market, Indian Tribes Pursuing Cannabis Sales on Their Own Land.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. March 24, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/sd-no-indian-pot-20190304-story.html.
  4. Jones, J. Harry. “Shut out of the Legal Pot Market, Indian Tribes Pursuing Cannabis Sales on Their Own Land.”
  5. “Tribes at Odds with Calif. Officials over the Right to Sell Marijuana.” The Washington Post.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Jones, J. Harry. “Shut out of the Legal Pot Market, Indian Tribes Pursuing Cannabis Sales on Their Own Land.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jones, J. Harry. “Tribe Opens Dispensary in Former Santa Ysabel Casino.” Ramona Sentinel. February 25, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/ramona-sentinel/news/local-news/sd-cm-ram-ysabel-marijuana-20190225-story.html
  10. “Tribes at Odds with Calif. Officials over the Right to Sell Marijuana.” The Washington Post.
  11. Jones, J. Harry. “Shut out of the Legal Pot Market, Indian Tribes Pursuing Cannabis Sales on Their Own Land.”

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