RED LAKE, Minn. — Members of northern Minnesota's Red Lake Nation will vote Wednesday, May 20, on whether to allow medical cannabis within the nation's bounds.

Members of the Chippewa Cannabis Party hope that its passage will lead to full recreational legalization, according to cannabis advocate Kevin Jones Jr.

The referendum question was brought to the ballot after organizers spent the better part of last year campaigning and gaining petition signatures, Jones explained.

“We’ve been going at this for 18 months," he said. "It took us 25% of enrolled band members to sign a petition —2,500 signatures — and that’s what it took to get the referendum on the ballot. We want the people to vote, we want the people to be in charge of this cannabis industry that we created."

The tribal council passed a resolution to include the topic on the ballot in February.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo indicating that tribal nations could legalize marijuana as long as they followed the same guidelines that applied to the states that had legalized it. Since 2014, there have been a number of attempts to move forward by pro-cannabis advocates in Red Lake that have been met with mixed reviews.

A first in Minnesota

According to a Facebook post on the Red Lake Nation For Full Legalization page, if the referendum vote passes, Red Lake Nation will be the only tribal nation to have a medical cannabis program in Minnesota that will be retailing medical cannabis in flower form.

Right now in Minnesota, cannabis is legal for those with qualifying medical conditions in liquid, pill or vaporized forms.

Minnesota residents diagnosed with the following conditions can be eligible for medical cannabis: cancer associated with severe/chronic pain, nausea or severe vomiting, cachexia or severe wasting, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizures including those characteristic of epilepsy, severe and persistent muscle spasms including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease including Crohn’s disease, terminal illness with a probable life expectancy of less than one year, Intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, obstructive sleep apnea and Alzheimer's disease.

If the referendum passes in Red Lake Nation, the list of conditions that qualify patients for medical cannabis would be much longer, Jones explained. Depression, chronic pain, and those recovering from opioid addiction would likely qualify, he added.

Jones said he has visited other tribal nations where medical marijuana was legalized and was told they’d seen a reduction in opioid overdoses.

“That’s something that I want to really fight for. I don’t like those hard drugs -- they took my family members,” he said. “If this passes, this is going to make a big change here in Red Lake Nation. There’s going to be a lot of changes to come with this.”

The medical cannabis referendum needs a simple majority to pass.

Recreational use

Residents will also vote to elect four district representatives to the tribal council, one each from the Ponemah, Redby, Red Lake and Little Rock districts. Those elected will serve a four-year term.

Jones, who is running for Redby representative, is a member of the Chippewa Cannabis Party and said if he or other party members were elected to the tribal council, they would push for recreational cannabis legalization within 30 days.

The election is being held despite the coronavirus pandemic, although voters have been encouraged to vote absentee, and curbside voting is available on Election Day.

Jones does not believe that the pandemic will discourage voters much and is confident that the referendum will pass, based on the enthusiasm and the number of Red Lake members who signed the initial petition.

“So far, I haven’t seen any ‘vote no’ signs out there for medical cannabis, but I’ve seen a lot of ‘vote yes’ signs,” he said.