Cannabis laws on public eventsI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–more state regulation of marijuana is going to lead to fewer and fewer cannabis cups and similar marijuana events and this in turn will force the purveyors of such events to get creative. Case in point: the 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup on the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation in Nevada near Las Vegas. The most recent update on this particular Cup is that despite receiving two warning letters from U.S. Attorney David Bogden, the Tribe is moving forward this Saturday with the Cup as planned.

The High Times Cannabis Cup, and others like it, revolve around events that assess the cannabis and cannabis products submitted to them by local competitors. At their core, these cups are commercial boons for the sponsors who use them to increase their brand recognition and for the local marijuana businesses that perform well and can use their good performances to tout their products for months and years down the road. Having the right to label your cannabis products as a “High Times Best In (fill in the blank)” is not an honor to be taken lightly in the marijuana industry where such accolades can and do influence cannabis buying decisions.

Even cannabis-friendly states have myriad prohibitions against selling or even gifting cannabis without specific state operational licenses. And virtually all states prohibit consuming cannabis in public and even quasi-private spaces. For example, High Times had to cancel its cannabis cup in Seattle in 2015 because such an event would have violated Washington State’s “sampling” laws that allow only state-licensed marijuana businesses and not consumers to “sample” cannabis products. High Times also had to cancel its Cup in both Denver and Pueblo, Colorado last year because Colorado restricts public cannabis consumption. I assume High Times chose to host this upcoming event on Moapa tribal lands because Nevada’s medical marijuana laws would not allow for such an event and because the Tribe can enact its own ordinances allowing for such Cups.

Given the Wilkinson statement regarding Tribal cannabis from and the Cole Memo regarding federal enforcement of its cannabis laws, it’s easy to see why the Moapa Indians are trying their hand at hosting this Cup. Nonetheless, tribes that have tried to legalize or “medicalize” marijuana on their lands have been met with mixed reactions and enforcement by the federal government (see here, here, here, here, and here). The Moapa are no exception.

On February 16th and 23rd, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden sent “warning letters” to the Tribe concerning this upcoming cannabis cup, reiterating that marijuana remains federally illegal and that the Tribe has an “incorrect interpretation” of the Cole Memo and Wilkinson statement. Bogden’s letters also reminded the Tribe that neither the Cole Memo nor the Wilkinson statement alter the power of the federal government to enforce federal laws on tribal lands. At no point in his February 16th letter did Bogden threaten to shut down the Cup. But Bogden’s February 23rd letter states that his office communicated with tribal officials and his understanding is that no cannabis or cannabis products will be present at the Cup. He also writes that High Times’ promotion of this event mentions nothing about the prohibition on cannabis and he asks the Tribe to confirm their understanding on this prohibition matches his. Given that the heart of these High Times Cannabis Cups are the competitions for best cannabis products, one has to wonder if there’s any advantage to High Times having the Cup on tribal lands at this point.

Since Bogden’s warning letters come on the heels of White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments about the likelihood for increased federal enforcement in states with recreational marijuana programs, many are wondering if Bogden’s actions are the beginning of what “increased enforcement” may look like. We do not believe so; we think this federal intervention is just another example of the Department of Justice’s continued unpredictable treatment of tribes and cannabis and its varying regional positions on cannabis.

Time will surely tell…