Michigan Tribe Separates Gaming From Pot

Bay Mills Tribal Chairman Bryan Newland (l.) tells GGB News that his tribe’s two businesses are totally disconnected. One has nothing to do with the other, but is an example of the diversification that is ongoing in Indian Country.

Michigan Tribe Separates Gaming From Pot

Diversification is the name of the game for many gaming tribes that have entered into other industries. It’s just wise not to put all of your eggs into one basket, even if the basket is a very lucrative casino.

In the case of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan they are venturing from one very highly regulated industry that has in the past been considered a “vice” by many, into another former vice but also heavily regulated industry: cannabis production and sales. An operation that the tribe envisions as being rather like a microbrew, but for pot.

Bay Mills Tribal Chairman Bryan Newland, in an exclusive interview with GGB News, noted that the Northern Lights Cannabis Company “is completely independent of our gaming business. We financed it with investment capital and it is a diversification of our current business holdings.” The initial investment was $1 million and will be followed by another $2-3 million over the next year.

Although the tribe’s two small casinos and the cannabis production facility are located on the same reservation, they will not comingle. They will not, for example, sell cannabis products at the casino. “That’s not in the works right now,” said Newland.

There are good reasons for keeping the businesses separate. “

It’s such a sensitive subject. When you mix two heavily regulated industries together it makes things overly complicated,” said the chairman.

The Bay Mills tribe became the first Michigan tribe to authorize marijuana use in this way. In 2018 Michigan’s voters approved a law that legalized marijuana cultivation for commercial and recreational uses. But it did not apply to Indian Country. and commercial recreational businesses. That law does not apply to Indian Country in Michigan.

“Our tribe in 2019 became the first Michigan tribe to authorize marijuana use and allowed the tribe to get involved,” he said. “Our business, Northern Lights, is licensed and operated under tribal law.”

“When Michigan passed its law, we were in this unique position where it would be legal outside of the reservation but illegal on tribal lands. We have a general council where everybody votes. After that law was passed our tribal members thought it was wrong to be illegal for us and our visitors. They put together a proposal and directed the tribal government to carry it out. So, this is a community-driven venture,” said Newland.

The tribe has an existing building on the 110 acres and the dispensary will open November 6.

“We will have an indoor cultivation facility that will be up and running this winter. Eventually we will sell exclusive products that we grow.”

He added, “We’re going to sell the full suite of cannabis products; your buds and smokables and vape, tinctures, oils, edibles, you name it.”

Northern Lights will employ about 25 tribal members and the hope is it will grow beyond that as the market allows.

“We will have a retail store, all in one vertically integrated. We will have a growth facility with the ability to process and test onsite — kind of like the microbrew concept.

All the sales will be on the reservation.

“We will not ship,” said Newland. “Unless we get an agreement with the state, our business activities are not planning to take it outside of tribal lands. We have tribal lands spread out across the state.”

The tribe has several noncontiguous sections, of which the largest is located in Chippewa County. It also has land in Bay Mills and Superior townships and the Sugar Island Township.

Shipping might eventually become a possibility but not in the foreseeable future.

“The law might evolve to where that becomes less contentious and risky but we don’t want to jeopardize either business while the federal government is trying to get its head around legal cannabis around the country,” said Newland.

The Northern Lights Cannabis Company dispensary will have its grand opening November 6.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.