Broward County

Former Seminole chief Billie to leverage sovereign land in the legal weed game

James E. Billie, seen here in 2003.
James E. Billie, seen here in 2003.

When it comes to the medical marijuana business, the complex web of local, state and federal regulations is among the greatest complications holding back companies, frightening banks and boxing in retailers.

But a new South Florida partnership believes it has a game-changer: sovereign land.

On Tuesday, former Seminole Tribe chief James E. Billie announced that his company, MCW, is joining with Electrum Partners, a Nevada-based cannabis firm, to assist tribes around the country in establishing medical marijuana operations. Billie predicts the legal weed business will eventually rival gaming as an economic engine for Native American tribes.

The announcement seems to foreshadow the eventual establishment of new medical cannabis players in Florida operating under tribal ownership, outside the current limitations on state licenses. But for now, Billie says, the partnership will focus its efforts on helping tribes outside the state find partners and set up operations.

“There’s tribes that ... already have the land. But they don’t have the funding. They don’t have the expertise. And they don’t have the ability to develop,” he said. “It will be bigger than bingo.”

Since the U.S. Department of Justice announced in late 2014 that tribes could grow marijuana on sovereign land, tribes around the country have dabbled in the business, to mixed results. In South Dakota, the Sioux destroyed an entire crop and their consultants faced criminal charges after ignoring warnings against setting up shop. In California, another tribe was raided by a local sheriff’s office after it was accused of going beyond what state regulations allowed.

Generally, some in the cannabis industry remain skeptical of tribal-sanctioned medical marijuana, concerned that the vagaries of the law are actually worse on sovereign land. But Electrum Partners president Leslie Bocskor notes that examples of business gone sour tend to involve over-reaching by tribes who misunderstood the law.

He says tribal-owned operations that work within the framework of the states in which they exist remain on solid ground, and have built-in advantages over their competitors.

Chief among them, he said: tribal-owned companies don’t have to contend with IRS code 280E, which places immense tax burdens on retail companies by preventing them from writing off the typical expenses associated with most retail operations. Meanwhile, tribal-owned businesses also have the benefit of operating under a single set of permitting and zoning regulations, versus the multiple versions that exist in the typical municipality.

“It is probably the single most significant change and opportunity that exists in the legal cannabis industry today and for the foreseeable future,” Bocskor said of the 2014 Justice Department memo.

Billie says the partnership is looking first to California. Florida, which passed a medical marijuana constitutional amendment in November, isn’t on the radar — yet. Billie says he won’t look at the state until it has at least set laws to regulate the amendment, which could happen as early as this week, with lawmakers headed back to Tallahassee on Wednesday for the start of a special legislative session.

“We’re specifically targeting the areas where it’s already legal and won’t be controversial,” Billie said.