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WALKER, MINN. - Tribal reservations in northern Minnesota are dominating the state's budding recreational marijuana industry. Three dispensaries are now operational in the region, with the most recent welcoming customers at a grand opening Thursday.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is the first tribe to open a dispensary this year, but more are on the horizon. Two tribes last year blazed the trail for recreational marijuana sales: NativeCare on the Red Lake Nation's reservation and Waabigwan Mashkiki ("medicine flower" in Ojibwe) in Mahnomen on the White Earth Nation's reservation. Both tribes previously sold medical cannabis.

But in Walker, the Sweetest Grass Dispensary by Leech Lake Cannabis Co. is new for the community. "Everyone says, 'We can't believe we're purchasing marijuana in Walker, Minnesota!'" business consultant Madison Marzario said.

Originally from Prior Lake, Marzario spent a decade in Colorado becoming an expert in the cannabis industry before bringing that expertise home to work with the Sweetest Grass.

A stone's throw from Northern Lights Casino, the new dispensary is located at the busy junction of highways 371 and 200. It's a well-placed pit stop for those visiting Walker, which boasts Leech Lake — the third-largest lake in the state, with over 600 miles of shoreline — and a population of 1,000 that mushrooms in the summer tourism months.

"We know that the amount of traffic through here in summer is incredible, and we just want to capture some of that traffic that's coming from the south since we are the closest dispensary to Minneapolis right now," said Michael Michaud, board chair for Leech Lake Cannabis Co. and CEO of Leech Lake Gaming.

Michaud said the company set its own regulations to be a licensed dispensary and cannabis supplier. They aren't growing pot yet, but intend to down the road; for now, they're partnering with the White Earth Band of Chippewa, which has a growth operation.

"This is a great opportunity for the reservations in the state of Minnesota because the state really put the guidelines into their regulation that allowed us to pretty much do what we want … within the boundaries of a reservation," he said.

White Earth recently purchased a former bar in Moorhead with hopes of opening another dispensary.

"There is still a ways to go on the legal authorization, but cannabis is certainly one potential use for this property should the law change to permit it," the White Earth Reservation Business Committee said in a statement to the Star Tribune.

Customers and supporters head inside on the opening day of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.
Customers and supporters head inside on the opening day of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.

Jerry Holt

The sale of recreational cannabis remains restricted on nonnative land as the state launches a licensing system next year through the Office of Cannabis Management. Minnesota last year became the 23rd state to legalize cannabis use, possession and cultivation for people 21 and older.

Tribes follow state guidelines when it comes to what consumers are allowed to legally purchase — 2 ounces — and there are transporting restrictions. Adults may transport up to 2 ounces of cannabis flower, up to 8 grams of cannabis concentrates, and edible products containing up to 800 milligrams of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes a high.

Those products can't be opened, however, and it remains illegal to consume marijuana inside a vehicle or drive high.

Eddie Thomas drove the 45 minutes to Walker from Menahga, Minn., arriving bright and early Thursday ahead of the 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the doors to the public.

"I like it. I like it in my area. I'm going to be here a lot," he said with a big laugh.

Thomas, 49, who works in flooring and had Thursday off, said the Sweetest Grass is closer and has a wider variety of products than the other two dispensaries at a decent price. He smelled every strain at the counter as costumers queued behind him. He purchased a prerolled joint and two different strains of flower, including Soap, which is grown by White Earth.

"I just grabbed a couple to try out, but I'm sure I'll be back," said Paul Smith Jr., 32, the first customer to walk out with goods Thursday. He lives in Park Rapids and works next door at the casino. "I'm pretty sure it will work out well with them both for business," he said of the dispensary and nearby casino.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal chairman Faron Jackson, center, cuts the ribbon during the opening of the Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal chairman Faron Jackson, center, cuts the ribbon during the opening of the Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.

Jerry Holt

Sweetest Grass welcomed tribal members to a soft opening Monday, before the grand opening Thursday to the general public, with drums and songs.

Tribal leaders remarked at the grand opening that Sweetest Grass is "doing things in a good way," an Indigenous expression about honoring tradition and spirit. Michaud said that while plenty of customers will use products recreationally, many will use it ceremonially and medically.

Band Chair Faron Jackson spoke about a Leech Lake elder and Vietnam veteran who used cannabis to treat his PTSD. The elder told Jackson before he passed away last year that cannabis was beneficial and healing.

"That made me feel good to hear that from him. I always thought it's a good thing, you know, the medical things that can benefit from use in a good way," Jackson said.

The dispensary is right in the heart of Cass County, Jackson said, and he couldn't be more excited: "This store here is for everyone in our community."

Members of the Prairie Island Indian Community attended Thursday's grand opening to congratulate Leech Lake on its new venture. Prairie Island will open the state's fourth cannabis dispensary in late June, near Treasure Island Resort and Casino.

Patrick Dennis, of Federal Dam, Minn., smokes a joint outside of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.
Patrick Dennis, of Federal Dam, Minn., smokes a joint outside of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's Sweetest Grass cannabis dispensary Thursday in Walker.

Jerry Holt