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Second annual Wisconsin Cannabis Industry Summit focuses on advocacy

Indigenous Tribes from across the country came to Baraboo Feb. 29 for the second annual Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association’s (ICIA) Wisconsin Cannabis Industry and Policy Summit.

About 100 people attended the conference, where organizers held five discussions on the current affairs on cannabis in both Wisconsin and around the country. Leaders in the industry’s agriculture and dispensary spaces joined tribal leaders shared their insights on the current state of the cannabis industry, current roadblocks, advocacy for health and economic benefits for Indigenous tribes and its future.

“Living in Wisconsin, being that we’re a state that I feel has been held hostage by just a lack of awareness from our representatives to move the needle forward to help our communities be better and we’ve watched the other states pop, we’re frustrated in Wisconsin. I can speak that personally as a taxpaying citizen,” said ICIA founder Rob Pero. “I think that is what the catalyst is for this event, two years in a row in Wisconsin to have a cannabis summit, and still waiting for things to change.”

Pero founded the ICIA three years ago with the purpose of empowering Indigenous communities to fight for the potential that cannabis can bring. He notes that there are 574 sovereign Indigenous nations in the United States and they are poised to start leveraging that sovereignty and swaths of unused land to uplift themselves.

Pero and many of the other speakers at the conference look at the consistent lag from Wisconsin as compared to neighboring states. He sees a breaking point on the horizon — especially with a recently proposed medicinal cannabis bill, which critics say is too narrowly drawn to move the needle economically.

“I think we’re at a precipice and there’s a breaking point that is going to happen soon,” Pero said. “With the government kind of pushing out a very highly restrictive medicinal bill, it really opened the door for the tribes to exercise their own outlook on how they could regulate this industry, specifically around medicine.”

Rob Pero. Photo by Omar Waheed.

But that starts with advocacy and education about the possibilities and benefits of cannabis. The conference, in its second year, aimed to share what change would look like.

Not all speakers were from tribes, but all had some relation to the cannabis industry. Brandon Wyatt with Iconoclast Industries, a company partnered with the U.S.Department of Agriculture that is investing in industrial hemp farmers with Climate-Smart Commodities Grants, spoke on understanding the deep connection tribes have to their land.

“As an attorney, I’ve got  to understand the difficulties of what it is to be a farmer and to have that respect and understanding of the indigenous tribes’ land stewardship and historical deep connection to the land,” Wyatt said. “So often the tribes have had it so hard, and really, all we need to do is put one line in there and make sure that it’s all treated equitably.”

Advocates for Indigenous tribes also came out to give insight into their own experiences in the past. Michael Decorah, an intergovernmental affairs specialist and former lobbyist for Indigenous communities, and Bobbi Webster, also a former lobbyist and current public relations director for the Oneida Nation, worked on the reformation of gaming regulation for Indigenous tribes in the past. They see it as another hurdle for tribes across the country to better themselves.

“My perspective is if you want to pass a bill, if you want to get it legalized, load up money and influence, lobby the heck out of the state of Wisconsin, be ready to spend money. It’s an expensive battle,” Webster said. “I’ve heard this back 30 years ago with gaming, ‘We’re sovereign. We can do it. We’re just going to do it.’ Well, we’re sovereign and we can do it but we’re not going to do it without money and without lobbying and without attorneys.”