Trouble in Tulalip
Meet Dennis Boon. He's a member of the Tulalip Indian Tribe and a qualified medical Cannabis patient. So why didn't that matter to the police?
Dennis, a commercial fisherman on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, which is just north of Everett, uses medical Cannabis to treat his severe epilepsy. Before leaving his home to return to work that afternoon, Dennis smoked a small amount of sativa Cannabis as part of his daily routine.
Minutes after leaving his house, officers from the U.S. Marshals Service, the Department of Corrections, Tulalip police and Snohomish County sheriff's deputies showed up at the home and told Dennis' girlfriend that they were looking for a wanted fugitive, who was later found in a back room of the duplex.
DOC officers, sheriff's deputies and Marshal Service officers left after taking their fugitive into custody, but the Tulalip officers stayed to investigate "the distinct odor of marijuana" that they say they smelled when they entered Dennis' home, according to police reports.
The officers searched Dennis' small house after obtaining a search warrant, and found about 7 grams of Cannabis, two joints and more than a dozen items of paraphernalia.
Dennis' copy of his medical Cannabis authorization was taken from the wall above the safe when the officers left that afternoon, Dennis said, but it is not listed in the search warrant as an item taken during the search. Photos of the authorization appear in court documents and it is mentioned in police reports and subpoenas, but a medical Cannabis authorization on tribal land doesn't mean much.
Defendants and attorneys in Indian criminal courts face a complex maze of federal and local jurisdictions. The Tulalip Tribe recognizes itself as a sovereign nation on federal land separate from Washington state, and is not required to adopt medical Cannabis laws instituted by the state. Even if they wanted to adopt Washington's medical Cannabis code, they are subject to federal jurisdiction, which does not allow any kind of Cannabis use.
Though Dennis is legally allowed to use Cannabis for medical purposes in Washington, as soon as he steps onto the reservation he calls home, he is vulnerable to prosecution from his tribal court and police. That's how it is on tribal land.
Dennis was in turn charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, both misdemeanors, in December 2011, and is scheduled for trial in Tulalip Tribal Court on Nov. 21, 2012.
While medical Cannabis is illegal on the reservation, if Dennis was not an Indian, his case would be different. In 2008, Tulalip police were granted jurisdiction over everyone on the reservation, not just tribal members and other Indians. While Tulalip police are allowed to arrest non-Indians, the Tulalip Tribal Court can still only prosecute Indians. If a non-Indian is arrested on the reservation, their case is transferred to Snohomish County Court, which is subject to Washington's medical Cannabis law.
Dennis and his lawyers lost a motion using the 14th Amendment to argue that the case violated the Equal Protection Clause, which requires states to provide equal protection to all people within a jurisdiction. Because a case involving a non-Indian would not fall under the Tulalip Court's jurisdiction, the motion was unsuccessful.
Dennis said he has suffered from epilepsy since he was a child. Repeated head traumas throughout his childhood resulted in him having multiple grand mal seizures every week for years, until he started using Cannabis regularly to treat them.
He said he smoked marijuana recreationally since he was a teenager, but in 1994, while attending college in Alaska, he met an epileptic who was using Cannabis as medicine. Since 1994, Dennis has treated Cannabis as a medication, using it in the morning, afternoon and evening, and he says he hasn't had a seizure in years.
He obtained his first authorization in California back before medical Cannabis was legal in Washington.
"I mean, the medical records don't prove it, but they give someone something to think about," Dennis said.
Before he started using Cannabis regularly to treat his epilepsy, Dennis said the government was spending $150,000 per year on his health care. Indian Health Services pays for Dennis' health care and on average spends a few thousand every year.
But neither Dennis nor science can truly prove that Cannabis stops epileptics from experiencing seizures.
Washington's medical Cannabis law identifies epilepsy as one of the conditions approved for Cannabis use, but little research has been done on the relationship between the plant and the illness. Opponents of medical Cannabis believe the drug lowers a person's seizure threshold, making seizures more likely. But others such as Dennis say that after using Cannabis, they experience drastically fewer seizures. The majority of test subjects interviewed say Cannabis has little or no effect on the frequency or intensity of their seizures.
For those patients who it works for, Cannabis is a welcome alternative to debilitating epilepsy drugs.
Dennis said that before he started medicating with Cannabis, he had tried many of the modern epilepsy drugs such as Tegretol, Dilantin and Depakote, with which he had varying levels of success managing his seizures. Some of the drugs worked well to reduce his seizures, but left him feeling heavily drugged, making it impossible to think, work or go to school, he noted. Others worked for a while, but seemed to wear off eventually. Dennis used Phenobarbital for a few years, but couldn't continue using it because it made him feel as though he was on animal tranquilizers.
"I tried to go to school like that, tried to work like that, but it just didn't work," Dennis said. He believes Cannabis is the most effective drug for controlling his epilepsy.
Dennis is a self-described radical and whistle-blower on the reservation and sees himself as a victim of, in his words, a "corrupt bureaucracy" in the state and tribe. Dennis alleges he was targeted by police because of an incident at a general council meeting, of which there are two every year. The general Council meeting is where the tribe enacts laws and tribal members who are eligible to vote discuss important matters.
Dennis said that on March 18, 2011, he spoke out at the council meeting, declaring himself a medical Cannabis patient and making a motion to legalize medical Cannabis on the reservation. Dennis said that despite overwhelming support for medical Cannabis at the meeting, the motion was tabled.
"I just painted a big red X on my back," Dennis said. The Council exercised their right to discuss the matter at a later date.
Even if the tribe had voted that night to legalize medical Cannabis on the reservation, it would have been extremely risky. While sovereign nations aren't required to recognize state laws, they are still under the watchful eye of federal law. Because of that, no tribe in Washington has officially legalized medical Cannabis. A spokeswoman for the tribe said as long as Cannabis is illegal at the federal level, there isn't anything they can do about it. No other Tulalip officials could be reached for comment on this story.
Dennis likened a grand mal seizure to getting beaten by a group of thugs. Dennis, 45, said his grand mal seizures were hard to deal with when he was young and they only get harder to deal with as he gets older. He said his last seizure was more than eight years ago.
"All I'm trying to do is just live," he said, his hands resting on his knees.
Dennis' medical condition grants him the right to use Cannabis in Washington, but not in his home.