RED LAKE -- Members of the Red Lake Nation will vote Wednesday on whether or not to allow medical cannabis within the nation's bounds.

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

According to an election notice, in addition to voting on four district representatives, Red Lake will answer the question: “Shall the tribal council authorize the production, regulation and distribution of medical marijuana on the Red Lake Reservation?”

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.

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.

Also on the ballot

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.

Fourteen people filed for candidacy.

  • Filing for Red Lake Representative were: Incumbent Robert "Bob" Smith, David Desjarlait and Donovan May.
  • Filing for Redby Representative were: Incumbent Allen Pemberton, Sheldon "Skin" Brown, Herman Donnell, Kevin Jones Jr., Gary Auginash Sr., Michael Cobenais and Rodney Prentice, Jr.
  • Filing for Ponemah Representative was: Incumbent Glenda J. Martin.
  • Filing for Little Rock District Representative were: Incumbent Michelle Barrett-Cobenais, Sherilyn (Tweety) Neadeau-Benais and Chris Jourdain.

Residents will also vote yes or no on the medical marijuana referendum.

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.

“We’re only going for medical on that ballot, but if either of us get elected as a representative, like myself or David Desjarlait or Sherilyn Neadeau-Benais,” Jones said. “We’re going to push for full recreational (use) across the board.”

Voting during COVID-19 restrictions

In a video posted to the Red Lake YouTube channel, Tribal Secretary Samuel Strong outlined precautions the tribal council is taking to keep residents safe while voting.

He mentioned that while postponing the election due to COVID-19 was briefly considered, because of Red Lake Nation constitutional requirements the election must be held during May.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our number one priority is the health and safety of our membership,” Strong said. “Absentee voting will be the preferred method to prevent the spread of the virus. Voters are encouraged to use absentee voting whether they are residents or otherwise.”

On election day curbside voting will be offered to every voter, but if in-person voting is chosen, only three voters will be allowed to cast their votes at one time at the polls, he added.

Absentee in-person voting is also available at the Red Lake Government Center from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Voters have been asked to remember to practice social distancing. For more information, call (218) 679-3341.

Medical martial law is still in effect in Red Lake Nation, and Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Jr. announced on May 13 that it would remain in effect and borders would stay closed through at least June 9.

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.

If the referendum passes

The medical cannabis referendum needs a simple majority to pass.

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.”