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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Is a new conflict looming between Charlestown and the Narragansetts?

Will recent change in federal marijuana policy provoke hostilities?
Each year, tribal leaders gather to mark the anniversary of the Smoke
Shop raid as if it happened yesterday. (Photo by Will Collette)
 
By Will Collette

I have been feeling a sense of foreboding that the cold war Charlestown’s town leaders have waged against the Narragansett Indian Tribe is spooling up for open hostilities. Here are the signs:

We have just seen a new, all-CCA Party town government take power. Their platform included the overtly hostile, anti-Narragansett position that:
“CCA-endorsed candidates will support the federal laws and the Supreme Court decision that prevent a casino or other unregulated development on tribal lands.”
On December 8, the new all-CCA Town Council also approved another extension of the annual contract with the town’s hired Indian fighter, attorney Joe Larisa, on a retainer of $2,000 a month, plus extra if he has to do more than read newspaper clips.

For instance, we will almost certainly be charged extra for his presence at the recent case of misdemeanor charges brought against two Narragansett tribal members who were arrested by Charlestown Police on tribal land. Click here and here for the Westerly Sun’s coverage.

This otherwise routine minor beef has become a major big deal because it is now an argument over over the issue of whether the Charlestown Police has jurisdiction on tribal land. In most other cases, the CPD will assist when called to help by the tribal police. That case is set to continue on December 18 which is the day most of you will be reading this article. 

There are still many silent but festering disputes between the town and the Tribe, such as the transfer of the old Camp Davis property from the state to the Tribe. Then there's the ultimate use of the site of the Narragansetts' proposed elderly affordable housing project off  Kings Factory Road that was the proximate cause of the terrible Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court ruling that the CCA Party deifies in its platform.

But the issue with the greatest potential to change a cold war into a hot one is the recent decision by the US Justice Department to allow Native American tribes to grow and sell marijuana. 


According to Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio: 
Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas of the Narragansett Indians tells me the tribe is looking at how the US Department of Justice said it won't stop Native Americans from cultivating or selling marijuana on their lands.”
Like most Charlestown residents, it hasn’t escaped my notice that the Tribe has kept the Smoke Shop, site of the infamous July 2003 raid by the Rhode Island State Police, in good repair.

My personal opinion is that the town of Charlestown has a long overdue obligation to reconcile itself with the Tribe, to accept their lawful sovereignty and to work as neighbors and partners with them for the common good and the prosperity of all.

Current tribal lands shown in purple. The orange wedge is the Camp
Davis property slated to be ceded to the Tribe, but stuck in limbo.
But one position often expressed in anonymous comments on the CCA Party’s official website holds that it is the Town and not the Tribe that is the victim of historic transgressions. That it is up to the Tribe, not the Town, to make amends.

All this flies in the face of history, of course, going back to the 1675 Great Swamp Massacre, the subsequent enslavement of the survivors, the 1880 “detribalization” of the Narragansetts and the outright theft their lands two years later.

Much of that land stolen in 1882 became the property of Charlestown’s ruling aristocracy who now form the core constituency (along with wealthy non-residents) of the CCA Party. 

They have never forgiven the Tribe for filing suit in 1975 to get their land back, ending up with the 1978 settlement agreement that led to the formation of the Tribe’s core homeland. They even have their own revisionist history on the CCA Party website.

Nor have they ever forgiven the tribe for considering a tribal casino after they saw the money casinos once brought in for the Mohegan and Pequot tribes in Connecticut, even though the Tribe gave up on that idea for Charlestown many years ago.

One excuse they gave for the lawsuit against the Tribe’s proposed elderly housing was that they saw it as a stalking horse for a casino. It doesn’t bother the CCA Party at all that to win their victory over the tribe, they did so through a widely-reviled Supreme Court decision that stripped sovereignty rights from 500 other Native American tribes.

They and their hired gun Injun Joe Larisa revel in this decision and in Republican Governor Donald Carcieri decision to send in the State Police to bust heads and seize the cigarettes the Tribe was selling tax-free at the Smoke Shop. All of this is on display in Larisa’s recent letter to the Town Council:

It is difficult to imagine any reconciliation between the Tribe and the Town as long as Larisa is retained as Indian fighter. I have no doubt he would love to have a Round Two of the Smoke Shop fight.
So what do you think will happen if the Narragansett Tribe decided to take the recent Department of Justice policy change to heart?

DOJ’s new policy applies to directly to those states that have legalized marijuana possession for recreational use (Oregon, Washington and Colorado). It could also apply to the 23 more states, like Rhode Island, that have legalized medical marijuana.

What if the Tribe decided to re-open the Smoke Shop as a Compassion Center? Rhode Island only has three centers. They are in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth. We could use one in South County. Perhaps the new Narragansett Health Center will have room for a compassion center.

The RI General Assembly will almost certainly take up the issue of full legalization of marijuana when it opens its new session in January. I think I can fairly predict the CCA Party will lobby against it, if only to deny the Tribe a new source of revenue.

But this will be an interesting test for the three recently elected libertarians[1] who won upset victories in the November elections for General Assembly seats. The Libertarian Party believes that marijuana should be unregulated, but if regulations are required, it should be regulated like wine. 

The recent DOJ policy shift adds a wild card to the General Assembly debate. Among the many arguments in favor of marijuana legalization is the amount of state tax revenue it would generate. Colorado collected $45 million in their first eight months of taxed and regulated legal marijuana sales.

However, Indian sales may not be subject to state tax. More than any other reason, the Narragansetts’ sale of cigarettes without paying state tax precipitated the 2003 State Police raid on the Smoke Shop. You can bet this will come up when the General Assembly debates this issue in the coming session[2].

Rhode Island decriminalized possession of up to one ounce, making it a non-arrestable civil offense. Suppose the Tribe started to grow and sell recreational weed…will the CPD or the State Police stake out Route Two to bust patrons as they exit the Smoke Shop?

Other tribes with other sources of revenue have said they plan to opt out of the marijuana market. The Mohegan Tribe’s Chief of Staff Chuck Bunnell told the New London Day that the Mohegan’s are not actively pursuing this…. We’re absolutely not at the point where we are classifying our interest in any particular aspect of the business. There is a great deal of due diligence required.”

According to the Day, “’The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council has not reviewed or considered the issue,’ Bill Satti, the tribe’s director of public affairs, said in an email.”

Of course, the Mohegans and Pequots already have not only their casinos but a large portfolio of other business interests, while the Narragansett Tribe have none. The lack of Narragansett enterprises is largely thanks to the resistance of the town leaders who control the CCA Party and the town government to every venture the Tribe has sought to undertake.


FOOTNOTES

[1] They include former Ron Paul convention delegate candidate Justin Price who defeated Rep. Larry Valencia, "Tenther" Flip Filippi who defeated Rep. Donna Walsh and Elaine Morgan who defeated Sen. Cathie Cool Rumsey.

[2] It’s hard to predict how much revenue Rhode Island would generate by legalizing marijuana. Here is a report that estimates the taxes would bring in anywhere from $21.5 million to $82 million. Based on the hard numbers from Colorado, the $82 million guesstimate seems far-fetched, but not the $21.5 million estimate.