By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
Marijuana use is a complicated issue. If you watched Tribal Council on Thursday, April 1, you were able to hear part of the ongoing debate over the legal and illegal use of marijuana. Over the decades, marijuana has been known by several “also known as” monikers – Bud, Dagga, Ditch Weed, Herb, Hippie Lettuce, Laughing Grass, Mary Jane, Reefer, Sticky Icky, Pot, and the popular Wacky Tobacky. Many of the slang synonyms came from users of the product. Scientifically, we are talking about the cannabis plant and particularly the buds thereof, known to have the highest levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the plant and the chemical that produces the therapeutic effect.
If you were a child even as late as the 1970’s, you are acquainted with a movie called “Reefer Madness”. The original title of the flick was “Tell your Children”. The movie was produced in 1936 and it was used all over the nation to scare said nation about the perceived dangers of cannabis (referred to in the film as “marihuana” or “reefer”.
The preamble of the film when like this, “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug – a violent narcotic- an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One! It’s first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then comes dangerous hallucinations -space expands -time slows down, almost stands still…fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances – followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions…leading finally to acts of shocking violence…ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt has been made to equivocate. The scenes and incidents, while fictionalized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction. If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose, because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter.”
Rhetoric like this kept my generation at arms-length from all things marijuana, or marihuana, if for nothing else, just to be on the safe side. It was common practice, even into the 1960s and 1970s to use scare tactics to persuade compliant behavior.
Fearmongering was common practice back in my day. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a series of highway safety films were produced and used for driver education, with titles like “Mechanized Death”, “Wheels of Tragedy”, “Decade of Highway Death”, and my favorite, “Death on the Highway”. Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing amusing or whimsical about drug misuse or distracted or drunk driving. Loss of life is truly tragic whether it is instantaneous or over an agonizing period of time. But, looking at these films in the context of the collective knowledge of the past 40 to 60 years, these films present images that are designed to highlight the exception and not the norm when it comes to marijuana and to driving.
Fearmongering, unfortunately, is common practice now in America and is alive and well on the Qualla Boundary too. Those who wish to push an agenda will often play on emotion to sway belief one way or another to persuade their audience. There may even be a grain of truth or fact in a presentation like “Reefer Madness” or “Wheels of Tragedy”, but the case for convincing you of the premise of the film is made with dramatic examples that often times are the exception, not the normal course of events.
For example, according to the Federal Highway Administration, United States citizens drove 3.22 trillion miles on the road in 2016. There were 7,227,000 accidents reported in the U.S., ranging from minor fender benders to horrific loss of life. Roughly half of those accidents resulted in injury and 37,461 people were killed. That means a traffic death occurred once every 85,956,061 miles. In that time, the average person drove approximately 13,000 miles in the year. By most standards, the number of deaths and injuries were minimal in comparison to the routine use of vehicles on the highways.
Each death and injury are tragedies for someone and should not be taken lightly, but to use those tragic experiences to make the driving public fearful is at least callous and at most misleading. In fact, using fear to push people into a particular behavior is likely to fail, particularly if misinformation is used to create a sense of urgency in a call to action. Telling people that, if you don’t do this – this will happen to you, will quickly fail; just ask Chicken Little or the boy who cried “wolf”. Still yet, there are many people out there who sincerely believe that their DNA will be altered by a vaccination. All because someone made a dramatic presentation on social media.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been the go-to agency when it comes to believable medical information for decades, particularly when it comes to disease medicine. Many have tried to make the convincing case that drug misuse is a disease, so it would make sense to listen to what the CDC has to say about cannabis. The CDC is not prone to using dramatics to make their points and recommendations, which may be seen in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The CDC has been a lead organization in the fight against the virus. Much of that guidance was considered by our own Tribal health organizations and Tribal leadership in the formulation of protocols for the community with regard to COVID-19.
So, the CDC (www.cdc.gov) says about cannabis the following:
“Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, with 37.6 million users in the past year and marijuana use may have a wide range of health effects on the body and brain.
“About 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. For people who begin using before the age of 18, that number rises to 1 in 6.
“Marijuana use directly affects the brain-specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time.
“Smoked marijuana delivers THC and other cannabinoids to the body, but it also delivers harmful substances to users and those close by, including many of the same substances found in tobacco smoke, which are harmful to the lungs and cardiovascular system.
“Marijuana users are significantly more likely than nonusers to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia (a type of mental illness where people might see or hear things that aren’t really there).
“Edibles, or food and drink products infused with marijuana and eaten, have some different risks than smoking marijuana, including a greater risk of poisoning. Unlike smoked marijuana, edibles can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours to take effect. So some people eat too much, which can lead to poisoning and/or serious injury.“
During the Tribal Council consideration of the proposed legislation, the amount of marijuana that would be allowed to be in a person’s possession and not be subject to prosecution would be 1.5 ounces. In a 2018 article in the Los Angeles Times (“A simple guide to pot, THC and how much is too much” by Alejandra Barreda, Kriistine De Leon, and Steffani Urmas), the average “joint”, marijuana cigarette contains approximately .3 grams, or .105 ounces, of weed. This means that the new law would allow a person to have between 12 and 15 joints in their possession and not be considered illegal. That is just five cigarettes shy of a pack of Marlboros.
So, the Tribal Council took up the issue of the proposed tabled ordinance [Ord. 380 (21)] titled “An ordinance decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana”. If you have not watched the April 1session of Tribal Council, I strongly urge you to do so, even if you have made up your mind one way or the other about allowing marijuana to become legal on the Boundary.
While the justifications for the proposed ordinance changes (the “whereas” part) talked about the need for medical marijuana use, the proponents of the ordinance, including Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, EBCI Natural Resources Secretary Joey Owle and EBCI Government Affairs Liaison Jeremy Wilson, seemed to be in favor of total “decriminalization” of possession up to 1.5 ounces, which would mean anyone could possess that amount without necessarily having a medical need or prescription.
Here is some of what Tribal leadership had to say concerning the ordinance (Again, take time to watch the entire discussion at www.ebci.com. It is important to hear these comments in their proper context).
Jeremy Wilson: “The purpose of this ordinance is to say we are not going to punish our people for self-medicating with marijuana, but to an extent that is 1.5 ounces. This is going to be the first step to the ultimate goal of legalization.”
Big Cove Representative Perry Shell: “This is the first step to get to medicinal use of marijuana.”
Birdtown Representative Albert Rose: “In Oklahoma, I think you have to have a medical marijuana card for this. Is that part of this?”
Principal Chief Sneed: “All of that will have to be proposed in a separate ordinance.”
Painttown Representative Dike Sneed: “I just want everyone to know why I won’t support this. I am in full support of medical marijuana, but as this came in, it won’t be through Cherokee Indian Hospital. I haven’t even been told if a doctor will be issuing the medical cards. The amount allowed in possession could be non-enrolled too. Until these items are worked out, I can’t support this. Can’t you bring it in all at once instead of pieces so that we will be able to see how it will work?”
Wolfetown Representative Bo Crowe: “It is going to be kind of hard to tell if it is for medical use or recreational.” (without the medical card)
Birdtown Representative Rose: “I am 100% for this medical. But how are our officers going to determine between the person who is using it for recreation or medical?”
Joey Owle: “To the point of what we are doing here is advocating for folks to be able to utilize cannabis as a substance to treat their ailments without criminal punishment. What we are advocating for is raising that threshold of criminality to decriminalize the possession of it for individuals’ choice use of cannabis. We are looking at people’s freedom to choose to use a substance for whatever ailment they are wanting to address and not be subject to criminal penalties within that small threshold that is reflective of what other states already do.”
Principal Chief Sneed: “This is an act of tribal sovereignty. It is the least harmful recreationally used substance. I could easily make the argument and have the data to support it that alcohol, even though it is legal is much more damaging in the short term, in the long term, to children. It is the main driver for domestic violence. When you talk about physically what it does to people, over the long term certainly more dangerous than cannabis. These are all facts. We all know this. I get a tad bit frustrated because it is not the 1940s anymore. We have all the data. We have the science. Most of us have met with the Northern Paiute from out in Vegas, and they have demonstrated that even on the recreational side that it can be regulated and distributed in a way that is safe. I think what we are saying here as a sovereign nation is that we trust our people to do what is in their best interests and to be responsible and that it is indeed an act of sovereignty.”
Yellowhill Representative Tom Wahnetah: “I would much rather see our enrolled members walk around with a small bag of cannabis as to walk around with a pocket full of pills, or heroine, or fentanyl. It is killing our youth. I think that this is going to give them the opportunity to medicate without going to those harder drugs. And not worry about getting put in jail for carrying around a joint to feel better and not hurt constantly.”
Birdtown Representative Boyd Owle: “This will probably ease the court docket as well. It would save time and money. I think it is one way to beat this opioid addiction. Doing it for our people. If they want it, let’s do it for them.”
Wolftown Representative Chelsea Saunooke: “Marijuana was the only way I got a family member back to close to who they really were. That was something that we just had to accept, because it was better than them being drunk on liquor, or whatever else drugs that were out there. I am for this. We are hindering our people right now from being able to do what they need to do. I am in support of it because I know the impacts it could have on our community.”
Painttown Representative Tommye Saunooke: “I don’t think that anyone around this horseshoe objects to the medicinal. I think the way its implemented will be the key.”
Vice Chairman David Wolfe (Yellowhill): “I am for the regulated medical marijuana and the steps that need to be taken to get to that point. But the way the ordinance reads right now it says ‘any person’, so a five-year old could get this and carry it to school with no repercussions upon anyone whether he got it from his parents, his uncle, his brother, he’s got in his backpack or something and that’s going to be unregulated or he’s not going to get in any kind of trouble. I know cigarettes, you have to be 21 to buy those. That’s regulated. You can buy those as long as you are over 21. Alcohol the same way. There are regulations and this (proposed ordinance) says any person. So, zero until if you’re breathing you can certainly be carrying it. We have a lot of kids here in the school and we are trying to keep them away from drugs, any kind of drugs whether it be marijuana or whatever. When we get to medical marijuana, regulated, I will be ready to support it but right now, in this case, I can’t just say any person. We have too many vulnerable people from the get-go. I am not ready to support it at this time.”
Chairman Adam Wachacha (Snowbird/Cherokee County): “Those are a lot of my concerns as well. I am very wary of it. I was not comfortable with the one and a half ounces. That is actually a lot to have on a person. And to be having it all the way down to any age group. I am for regulated cannabis as well. If we go into the medical market where we produce it from seed to sale, I am in support of that. Because I know exactly what they will be getting. I think supply and demand will increase. I am not willing to open the floodgates to allow it until we get to the point of (medical regulation).”
Joey Owle: “It sounds like there is a concern that there isn’t a mechanism to punish somebody and it seems like that is what is desired from a few Council members. You still want to punish people for possession and that is the point of this-is to lift that punishment or that threshold.”
Other concerns that were expressed by members of the Council were that they felt like the Tribe wanted to move to marijuana as a medical solution for the community under medical supervision and did not intend to allow recreational use, which decriminalizing possession of 1.5 ounces or less would do. And without the Tribe being involved in production, the community would be left to their own devices as to how to obtain their cannabis, some Council members referring to “black market” vendors and suppliers, where quality and additives could not be regulated. Council first moved to pass, then moved to kill, and then moved to table the proposed ordinance for a work session to discuss solutions.
There was a clear indication that some felt that cannabis might be at least a partial solution to the opioid epidemic that continues to be pervasive in the community.
And I did, indeed find some research to back that feeling up with some fact. In a Harvard Medical School publication from 2019 by Dr. Peter Grinspoon in a paper titled “Access to medical marijuana reduces opioid prescriptions”, Dr. Grinspoon stated, “One of the studies, a longitudinal analysis of the number of opioid prescriptions filled under Medicare Part D, showed that when medical marijuana laws went into effect in a given state, opioid prescriptions fell by 2.21 million daily doses filled per year. When medical marijuana dispensaries opened, prescriptions for opioids fell by 3.74 million daily doses per year. These reductions in daily opioid doses were particularly notable for hydrocodone (Vicodin) and morphine prescriptions. The other study analyzed Medicaid prescription data from 2011 to 2016, and that analysis showed that states that have implemented medical marijuana laws have seen a 5.88 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing, and when they implemented adult-use (i.e., recreational use) marijuana laws, there was a 6.38% reduction in opiate prescribing. In the editorial accompanying these studies, the authors noted, ‘We do not know whether patients actually avoided or reduced opioid use because of increased access to cannabis (marijuana).’ However, given that millions of prescriptions for opiates were not written, and consequently there were millions fewer bottles of prescription opiates consumed, sold, diverted, or abused, it does not seem to be too big a leap to infer that opiate use was avoided, or at least reduced.”
The Chief, the Secretaries, and the Council seemed to be on the same page with regard to the benefits of medicinal use of the drug (a word that all tried desperately not to use in reference to cannabis). The Chief provided a heartfelt family example of how cannabis helped his family. Others talked about all of those who have mental and physical infirmities where cannabis could give peace and relief from pain. And these were all good supporting arguments for medicinal use. But the legislation put before Council did not ask for medical use. It was an ask for blanket approval of unrestricted use up to 1.5 ounces.
Secretary Owle kept referring to allowing people to “self-medicate” without persecution or prosecution. Anyone with any knowledge of history knows that doing that has had disastrous effect when dealing with medications and abusable substances. Alcohol was regulated as a medicine prior to becoming a recreational substance. Everyone in the Council chamber knew what alcohol had done to friends and family in the community. Drug dependency begins when lay people go beyond the medically appropriate and regulated use of the substance.
There needs to be transparency. This is a big decision for the Cherokee people, possibly one big enough to be a referendum item so that the people can choose the path to the Tribe’s entry into legalized uses of cannabis. So far, there have been studies and surveys that have been referenced but never shared with the public and meetings with another tribe that the community was not invited to. While it was mentioned that some attorneys and possibly the prosecutor’s office were consulted or at least queried, they were not present for questioning by the Council. No mention was made of any consultation with the court system or public health officials regarding this legislation. Several questions about enforcement were broached, but no members of the Cherokee Police or Natural Resources Enforcement were on hand to share their expertise. There was discussion of the business aspects of going into the cannabis business, but no representative of the Kituwah, LLC was mentioned as being at the table for discussions about sustainability and profitability.
I think there is no question that if there is a therapeutic drug that will benefit the Cherokee people, all will want that drug on the Boundary. Based on the information from the CDC, taking marijuana is not like taking an aspirin. It needs to be produced and provided in an environment that we may either verify or control ourselves. But marijuana should not get blanket approval, even if it should find favor with the people for recreational use. Even recreational use should be regulated, just like tobacco and alcohol, particularly if one of the reasons we are going into it is to create another revenue stream.
As I said, marijuana use is a complicated issue. And while we need to put the message from “Reefer Madness” in the past where it belongs, we need to take heed of what medical science currently tells us and follow the heart of our community. There is fearmongering going on both sides of this issue and it is not productive. Personal agendas need to get in the back seat as well. If our leadership is going to claim to do something for the people, then it needs to be a benefit to the people, not just another problem that we will have to endure or fix. Someone commented that, like other substances, it’s already out there. True enough, but we are not pushing it. Once we decide we are going to willingly bring it into our community, we become accomplices. So, we definitely need to make sure it comes into our community the right way.
“Reefer Madness” is available on Youtube. It is a very interesting and kind of fun film to watch. So if you have an hour and eight minutes to kill sometime, check it out. You won’t learn a whole lot about marijuana, but you will surely enjoy visiting the culture of 1936. What Chief Sneed said is very true. We are not in the 1940s anymore.