Tribes Reluctant To Follow Northwest Voters On Legal Marijuana

File photo. Northwest tribes are in no rush to legalize marijuana.Austin Jenkins Northwest News Network
File photo. Northwest tribes are in no rush to legalize marijuana.
Austin Jenkins Northwest News Network


By Jessica Robinson, NW News Network

The U.S. Department of Justice this week opened the door to a legalized pot market on tribal land.

But many Northwest tribes appear to be in no rush to go in the direction of Oregon and Washington voters.

The Department of Justice said it will treat Indian tribes that legalize pot with the same hands-off prosecutorial approach that it’s treated states with legal pot. That means there could be a potentially lucrative marijuana business on reservations even in states like Idaho, where pot remains illegal.

But it’s still up to the tribe.

Charles Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said drug law enforcement is a matter of public health.

“The tribe will continue to prosecute and cite those folks who are in violation of those laws,” he said.

In Washington, the Yakama Nation wants to ban sales both on its reservation and on millions of acres of surrounding land where it has treaty rights.

The Department of Justice decision came as a surprise to many tribes. The policy adviser for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in north Idaho said legalizing pot hadn’t even been on the tribe’s radar.

Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

Nikki Burch
Nikki Burch


By Brentin Mock and Jacqueline Patterson, Grist


As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

Consider that only 51 percent of American voters “strongly” prefer clean energy investments, according to a recent Sierra Club survey, but preference is significantly higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent). A Yale study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent — a modest sum — of energy load from wind or solar, even if that would increase electric bills.

And yet it’s white men who exercise most of the power over the current coal-based economy – via their places on corporate boards, their positions in politics, and, on the local and state level, where they make up the bulk of public utility and service commissioners. The utility commissioners (who are usually elected or appointed) regulate the corporate-owned utility industries, determine electricity costs and, in some cases, decide where power plants can be built.

These utility commissioners will play a critical role in hammering out the details of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced regulations for coal-fired power plants. Yet, many of them do not look like the residents that the utilities serve. According to a study from the Minority and Media Telecom Council, 33 state public utility commissions (64.7 percent) do not have a single minority member — that includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the states with the highest concentration of black residents.

We also see this whiteout at the federal level, where the number of people of color serving in the U.S. House and Senate energy committees are but a handful.

You can chalk this lack of diversity up to the kind of patronage and cronyism that has preserved these powerful roles for white men —  a function of white supremacy. You can also credit voter suppression and intimidation, which happen even in local utility district elections. In fact, such shenanigans are harder to detect in these smaller races that don’t draw the same kind of media spotlight as a gubernatorial or presidential race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans built multiracial coalitions to diversify local utility boards and electricity co-ops throughout the South, white officials secretly changed election rules to disqualify their votes (read more on this here).

Other examples:

● In 2000, the Department of Justice filed a voting rights complaint against the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, Calif., for redrawing district lines so that the Latino voting populations would be diluted across the district.

● In 2008, Texas proposed to change its qualification requirements for candidates running for water supply district supervisor so that only landowners would be eligible, which ruled out a number of Latino Americans seeking candidacy and some who were already supervisors.

● Also in 2008, the North Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder case, which the U.S. Supreme Court almost used to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, involved elections for positions that control utility, land, and water resources.

These cases show how racial disenfranchisement drains power, energy, and resources from people of color, which is why Voting Rights Act protections are so essential.

People are taking action despite these problems. Latino Americans are campaigning to defeat a proposal from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which wants to build more coal and nuclear energy stations. In Arizona, Latinos are campaigning to encourage the Salt River Project public utility board to increase solar and wind energy generation. In South Carolina, Rev. Leo Woodberry is leading an environmental justice effort to work on the state’s implementation plans for the new power plant regulations, with an emphasis on making sure electricity rates remain affordable and accessible for low-income customers.

Understand, it’s not only that we need more black and brown utility commissioners. But voters need to ensure that commissioners of any race represent their clean energy values. Last year in Georgia, a multi-racial band of clean energy advocates teamed with the not-so-colorful Tea Party to force Georgia Power Company to increase solar-based energy production. The coalition did this by appealing to the Georgia Public Service Commission. There has been only one African American and one woman who’ve served on Georgia’s Public Service Commission in its 133 years, both of them elected in the 21st century.

These are laudable campaigns, but ultimately it will require African-American, Native-American, and Latino American voters being able to vote fairly and freely — and also to be able to serve on these boards — to ensure that those paying the highest costs for our fossil fuel addiction have a voice in securing a clean energy future. For all Americans who want the same for their future, the way to act is to support strengthening voting rights protections across the nation.

Brentin Mock is Grist’s justice editor. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.

Washington’s GMO labeling flop, two weeks later: What it means

By , Grist

Ever since Washington state voters rejected a measure to label genetically engineered food earlier this month, I’ve been trying to understand what the vote meant.

On election night, I stressed the importance of advertising, but people on Twitter and in comments have questioned that emphasis. Political advertising rarely changes opinions; it generally sets people more deeply in their convictions. So perhaps what the Washington vote shows us is that fewer people care about GM food than it seems.

Why the measure lost is also related to the question of who voted. In the end, only 45 percent of registered voters cast their ballots — the lowest turnout in a decade. What does that mean? And what’s the significance of the fact that the race tightened up as officials counted ballots: The measure was losing by 10 percentage points in early tallies, but that margin eventually narrowed to 2 percentage points, with 49 percent voting for, and 51 against.

The answers to these questions have interesting implications for future labeling campaigns. The Washington vote seems to be telling us that concern about GM food is broad and shallow. That is, lots of people are vaguely worried about transgenics, but it’s not a core issue that drives majorities to the polls.


“This was a solution looking for a problem,” said Stuart Elway, president of the Seattle-based polling company Elway Research. “People were not highly agitated about GMO labeling.”

Let’s dig into the evidence that this vote gives us to suggest that conclusion:


With nearly all the votes counted, I stand by my initial impression that money made all the difference in this vote. I did, however, get the precise amounts wrong: I wrote that opponents spent more than $30 per “No” vote, but more ballots came in than I’d estimated. In fact, they spent just under $25 per vote (that’s $22 million over approximately 890,000 votes). Still, that $22 million is a lot of money — more than has ever been spent before in either opposing or promoting a ballot measure in the history of the state [PDF].

And as soon as the money began to flow, Elway saw a shift in his polling numbers: The measure had a huge 45 percent lead in September. Then the ads began to run, and that lead dropped to 4 percent in October.

“There was a 41 point swing in six weeks, which is unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve been tracking politics in this state for 30 years and I’ve never seen such a big swing in such a short amount of time.”

Among the people who had seen the ads, the measure was losing.

“When we asked them why they were voting no, people were reciting the talking points from the ads back to us,” Elway said.

It’s clear that, in this case, advertising swayed public opinion. But at the same time economists have established that it’s hard to change opinion with political spending. So what gives? Well, there’s an exception to the rule. While it’s nearly impossible for advertising to shift core values — like getting a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican or vice versa — it is possible for advertising to change the mind of someone who hasn’t fully committed. When people haven’t encountered the arguments on each side, those arguments tend to work.

One poll found that 93 percent of Americans favor labeling GM food. But half of the people questioned in that poll weren’t aware that GMOs were already widespread in processed foods — in other words, they were concerned, but brand new to the debate. In previous Washington polls Elway conducted on food safety, GMOs had come in sixth out of six potential problems with the food supply. So, while it’s clear that there’s widespread anxiety about GMOs, it doesn’t seem to be deep-seated.

Voter turnout

The low voter turnout is especially remarkable since Washington sends a vote-by-mail ballot to every voter. From one perspective, this means that 55 percent of voters cared so little about GMOs that they ended up throwing out their ballots. Just 22 percent of all registered voters in the state sent in a ballot voting yes on the measure.

But look at it another way: If all the voters in King County, where the measure passed, had turned out, the initiative would probably have passed.

“Low turnout votes do tend to be more conservative,” said David Ammons, communications director for the Washington Secretary of State’s office. And Democrats had shown they were more likely than Republicans to favor the initiative.

In Elway’s October poll, the measure was trailing among people who had voted in all of the last four elections, but it was winning among those who voted less than half the time. All this suggests that a higher voter turnout could have led to the initiative’s passage. Perhaps if more people were motivated to vote by a concurrent presidential election, for instance, they would have checked “Yes” on this initiative a little farther down the ballot.

Perhaps. Or maybe those non-voters would be swayed by the same ads. When California voted on a similar initiative in 2012, during a presidential election, 72 percent [PDF] of registered voters showed up, but the initiative still failed by an infinitesimally wider margin than in Washington.

Either way, it turned out that Washington’s labeling initiative relied on infrequent voters — they favored the proposition 49 to 37 percent, according to Elway — and they couldn’t be bothered to vote this time. GMOs aren’t driving people to the polls. Once again, concern about GM food looks shallow.


Lots of votes came in late. “We did see a general trend toward people keeping their ballots longer,” Ammons said. “I think a lot of people were still studying the GMO issue. There was a lot of media on this, a lot of explanatory journalism. I think there were a lot of people seriously trying to understand if this was the right answer, weighing it, and holding onto their ballots up until Election Day.”

The later voters were more likely to favor the initiative, but Ammons said, “We don’t have a good working hypothesis on that yet.”

He pointed out that later Seattle-area ballots elected a socialist councilmember while also voting down a minimum wage hike. It’s hard to tell what, if anything, can be learned from the timing of the votes.

What’s the lesson here?

Advocates in Oregon are already preparing a similar initiative for the 2014 election in that state. If the pattern holds, we’ll see widespread support early on (they’ll have no trouble getting the signatures necessary to put it on the ballot). Then the food industry will wade in and begin buying up advertising slots, and sentiment will shift. In the end, the proposition will lose by a couple of points.

Of course, that pattern could break. Businesses could decide they don’t want to be forking over cash every year to defeat propositions. The seed-company Syngenta, for instance, stayed out of the Washington contest after contributing in California.

But if that pattern holds, I have some advice for labeling advocates: It’s not enough to raise the specter of danger. You’ve already got the populist base, so simple, broadly appealing arguments won’t be sufficient. You’ll need more sophisticated arguments that stand up to scrutiny — the kind of arguments that convince newspaper editorial boards (they almost all advised voting no in Washington) and scientific organizations, rather than alienating them.

Panic-free GMOS: See the full story list