Jim Billie latest to look at growing marijuana and hemp products

By Sandra Schulman
News From Indian Country

Jim Billie, the controversial folk singing, alligator wrestling, former Chairman of the Seminole tribe who ushered them from bingo to billion dollar Hard Rock Casino Resort owners, is now looking toward setting up marijuana-growing operations on Native American land.

A company owned in part by Billie announced this last June it is forming a partnership with a major marijuana investment and advisory firm out of Nevada. The goal is to bring marijuana cultivation and production to Indian land.

“This business could be way bigger than bingo,” Billie said, as medical marijuana is fast becoming legalized state by state in the USA.

Billie and the Nevada-based Electrum Partners will cast a wide net at first, looking to advise tribes on setting up medical marijuana regulations in states where such regulations are already in place. The ambitious new partnership aims to open licensed medical marijuana facilities in states where it’s already legal, to compete alongside the legal entities, but as sovereign nations the Indian marijuana industry would have a huge tax advantage.

“A Native American-owned business not only avoids the federal income tax, but the Internal Revenue Code also imposes an additional burden on medical marijuana businesses,” said Leslie Bocskor, founder of Electrum Partners in an interview with local newspapers. “They now have effective tax rates that can approach 60 percent or more based on the application of the tax code. The Native Americans not having that as a burden gives them a tremendous competitive advantage.”

Both Billie and Bocskor said they would take a wait-and-see approach to Florida, as regulations are not yet in place for the Sunshine State. They will work on having a successful model in other states, then they could bring competition to the 7 licensed growers in Florida, assuming a Florida tribe wants to partner. Billie said they’re looking to start in California.

The Florida Legislature passed bills that will allow more growers in the state this summer. Billie said he hopes to work with the Seminole Tribe after rules are in place. His partners at Electrum were very optimistic.

“Whether it’s the Seminoles or others, we see this as the first step toward eventually having a regulatory framework that allows cultivation, extraction, manufacturing and distillation on Native American land,” said Bocskor.

Electrum Partners is a company that advises investors and entrepreneurs on how to break into the marijuana industry. They have advised Nevada, Pennsylvania and Costa Rica on establishing marijuana regulations.

When it comes to the medical marijuana business, it’s a complex web of local, state and federal regulations holding back companies, scaring away banks and retailers. But factor in a new South Florida partnership with the unregulated sovereign land and it’s a game changer. Billie saw the potential in upscale resort gambling decades ago and now predicts the legal weed business will eventually rival gaming as an economic engine for Native American tribes.

The announcement sees the eventual establishment of new medical cannabis players in Florida operating under tribal ownership, far outside the current limitations on state licenses. But for now, Billie says, until more Florida regulations are in place, the partnership will focus its efforts on helping tribes outside the state find partners and set up operations.

“There’s tribes that already have the land. But they don’t have the funding. They don’t have the expertise. And they don’t have the ability to develop,” he said.

“It will be bigger than bingo.”

Since the U.S. Department of Justice announced in late 2014 that tribes could cultivate marijuana on native land, tribes around the country have attempted the business, to mixed results. In South Dakota,  the Sioux destroyed an entire crop and their consultants faced criminal charges after ignoring warnings against setting up shop. In California, another tribe was raided by a local sheriff’s office after it was accused of going beyond what state regulations allowed.

But tribal-owned operations that work within the framework of the states in which they exist remain on solid ground, and have built-in advantages over their competitors as long as they know what they are doing. The biggest advantage is that tribal-owned companies don’t have to contend with IRS code 280E, which places immense tax burdens on retail companies by preventing them from writing off the typical expenses associated with most retail operations. Tribal-owned businesses have the benefit of operating under a single set of permitting and zoning regulations, versus the multiple versions that exist in most states.

Billie, no stranger to controversy is being cautious this time around.

“We’re specifically targeting the areas where it’s already legal and won’t be controversial,” Billie said.

James Billie in his younger years wrestled alligators.

It’s high time – pardon the pun – for tribes to take advantage of yet another advantage their sovereignty gives them. And the offshoots of marijuana, such as hemp products, brings yet another valuable business product to the table.


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