One of the world's largest marijuana festivals, which is expected to be held this week on tribal land outside of Las Vegas, has been facing a possible shutdown for the past two weeks, according to a letter sent by federal officials earlier this month.
While the festival is all about weed, there may be one important item missing at the event: the green herb itself.
U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, based in Las Vegas, sent a Feb. 16 letter to the Moapa Paiute Tribe reminding the tribe that the transport, possession, use and distribution of marijuana is illegal under federal law.
The marijuana trade show and festival, planned for March 4 and 5, would be in violation of that law, according to the letter obtained by the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"I am informed that the tribal council is moving forward with the planned marijuana event referred to as the 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup because it is under the impression that the so-called 'Cole Memorandum' and subsequent memoranda from the Department of Justice permit marijuana use, possession and distribution on tribal lands when the state law also permits it.
Unfortunately, this is an incorrect interpretation of the Department's position on this issue."
The Cole Memorandum provides guidance to federal officials in states that have legalized marijuana in some form. In 2011, then-Deputy Attorney James Cole directed all U.S. attorneys to take into account local laws when looking at marijuana enforcement, which allowed officials to give lesser priority to marijuana crimes.
Another memo, the Guidance Memorandum, indicates that tribal governments and U.S. attorneys should consult government-to-government as issues arise.
"Nothing in the Guidance Memorandum or the Cole Memorandum alters the authority or jurisdiction of the United States to enforce federal law in Indian Country or elsewhere," Bogden wrote in the letter.
The tribe has since been working with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nevada to resolve the conflict, according to tribal chairman Darren Daboda. The U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed the letter, but declined comment.
If federal officials were to intervene, it would be one of the first indicators that the White House is indeed going to crack down on marijuana crimes in states where recreational marijuana is legal. Thus far, only spotty, vague statements have been released so far, but no clear plan of action has been revealed by the new administration.
"To us, we’re looking at it as utilizing our sovereignty," Daboda said.
The Cannabis Cup is produced by the High Times, a cannabis-centric magazine that has been published since 1974. The publication, whose representatives were not available for comment this week, describes the event as the world’s leading marijuana trade show, "celebrating the world of ganja through competitions, instructional seminars, expositions, celebrity appearances, concerts and product showcases."
The High Times recently sent out a letter, however, to vendors and attendees, warning them not to bring the very substance that they are celebrating.
"Vendors, guests, performers and attendees are advised to comply with all local, state, and federal laws regarding the use and distribution of cannabis and cannabis related products. In order for the cannabis industry to continue to earn legitimacy and social acceptance, we understand that rules and laws need to be abided," the letter stated. "High Times will continue to stand up for our civil liberties and advocate for our inalienable rights to cultivate and consume cannabis. We urge you to join us."
The High Times also removed its promotion of the herbal spas, cooking contests and samplings that would have involved Cannabis products.
For about three decades, the gathering convened in Amsterdam, until Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana and Denver hosted a cup in 2013. Anywhere from 7,000 to 35,000 attendees have been reported at the giant hemp rendezvous.
This year's Las Vegas event is headlined by rapper Ludacris, who is known for "Rollout" but also has recorded tracks such as "Blueberry Yum Yum (Smoke Weed Everyday)." The gathering will also feature samplings and pairings of edible cannabis products, spa treatments with cannabis oils and a wide array of vendors marketing their latest marijuana-geared products, according to the High Times website.
"The tribe is promoting it as a vendors' crafts, food and concert event. We're not promoting the distributor or selling (marijuana)," Daboda said.
The event will be held in a fenced-in, secured area and the event is only for ticketholders aged 21 and over. Hired security will be at the event, and tribal law enforcement will be available if needed.
Daboda was not sure whether federal law enforcement would be present at the event.
While the Cannabis Cup is scheduled for several venues this year; the Las Vegas event kicks off the series and will be somewhat of an inaugural celebration of Nevada's recent passage of marijuana legalization in November.
Fifty-four percent of voters marked 'Yes' on Question 2, which allows anyone 21 and over to possess up to 1 ounce of recreational pot, though public consumption still is prohibited. The herb is not yet on the market in Nevada for recreational users, although medical marijuana dispensaries around the state are poised to begin selling recreational product as soon as July.
The passage of Question 2, however, put tribes in a predicament since many American Indian tribes' budgets rely heavily on federal funding. Daboda said that, while the tribal council was concerned about federal funding being pulled from the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the council passed its own regulations to be applied on the reservation and also has been speaking regularly with the U.S. Attorney's Office in teleconferences to keep in good standing with federal officials.
Daboda did not know what percentage of the tribe's budget came from the federal government, nor did he disclose how much money the tribe was making off of the Cannabis Cup.
"As long as (marijuana) is not visible, we’re told it will be OK," Daboda said, referring to the pickle that many tribes are in when it comes to future involvement in the marijuana industry.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, will be proposing a bill later this legislative session to address recreational marijuana policies for tribes in-state.
"This is the kind of event that we’d like to see in Nevada. This could be a huge boost for the tourism industry,” said Segerblom, a staunch advocate for marijuana.
Even if the event is carried out as planned, the tribe is uncertain whether it will pursue further involvement with the cannabis industry because the White House recently suggested that it would have "greater enforcement" of the federal prohibition of marijuana.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week that federal officials would focus their efforts toward enforcing the recreational marijuana prohibition, but federal officials would not come after those in the medical marijuana industry. Sessions this week, however, stated that states can pass laws, though the federal government has the right to enforce federal law as well.
Eight states, including Nevada, and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and more than two dozen states have legalized medical marijuana.
Asked whether cannabis would be present at the Cannabis Cup this weekend, Daboda said he was not sure.
"We're working on (that) right now," he said.