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Bay Mills Indian Community plans to be “major player” in Michigan marijuana market

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Brett Levin Photography
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Photo of marijuana grow in Colorado

The Bay Mills Indian Community announced on Wednesday that it plans to be a “major player” in Michigan’s marijuana market.

The tribe will convert some 110 acres of tribal land into a grow operation. It is part of a "seed to sale" project tribal officials said will eventually place retail stores across Michigan. 

According to survey data from the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, the owners of licenses for both medical and recreational marijuana facilities in Michigan are predominantly white.

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Data courtesy of the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency

The data is based on a voluntary survey that an official with the Agency said has only seen a 19% response rate, but shows disproportionately fewer Black license holders.

Before Michigan legalized recreational marijuana in 2018 a data analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black residents in Michigan were three and a half times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana compared with white residents.

That analysis did not examine disparities for Native or Indigenous populations.

Bryan Newland is the President of the Bay Mills Indian Community. He said after legalizing marijuana the industry should have gone to aid communities of color most impacted by the war on drugs.

“We’re going to be a player here and the proceeds are not going to flow back to wealthy shareholders all over the country they are going to come right back to our community,” he said. “I think that is what Michigan voters intended when they passed this law.”

Because they are a sovereign nation Bay Mills will not have to operate under state regulations - which Newland said will lower some of their start-up costs.

One of the major barriers to entry into Michigan’s marijuana industry are the start-up costs. The state’s application fee for a license alone is $6,000. A grower license can cost up to $40,000 and a retail license costs $25,000. License renewal fees can make those costs annual affairs.

“We’re using our lands, our laws, our regulations, and our people to get this off the ground,” Newland said. “We’re not going to be encumbered by the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency and what they do to benefit companies like Lume.”

The tribe first legalized personal and commercial marijuana use on tribal lands in 2019. Newland said as a sovereign nation the tribe could have legalized it earlier but there was uncertainty around how the federal government might respond.

“But when Michigan voters authorized this we said we can’t have a situation where a non-indian brings marijuana onto the reservation and would not be violating the law but if one of our tribal members or another Indian person did the same thing they would be violating the law. That would be inequitable.”

Earlier this year, Bay Mills announced a deal with DraftKings, making them one of the first tribes in the country with an agreement to operate online gaming.

Newland said the moves are about more than diversifying tribal revenue streams.

“For the last three decades our economy has been based on casino gaming and it has been great,” he said. “But we’re trying to create a diverse field of work opportunities so our people have an opportunity to come to live here at home with our people and keep our tribal community intact for coming generations.”

Newland said he thinks the business will bring anywhere from 50-75 new jobs to the tribe.

“The revenues are going to benefit communities in Michigan, people of color in Michigan, people who have been harmed by a half-century of drug policy,” he said. “We’re going to use our tribal sovereignty to make it happen.”

“And we’re not asking anybody’s permission,” Newland added. “We’re doing it on our terms.”

The goal for the Indian Community is to start selling products within the next 14-16 months.