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LCO Group Takes Tour of White Earth Cannabis Operations

By Joe Morey

News Editor

White Earth Chairman Fairbanks talks with Bill Trepanier, Thi Li and Dave Bisonette

A Group of LCO tribal representatives, including Tribal Governing Board (TGB) members David Bisonette and Sec.-Treasurer Bill Trepanier, visited the White Earth Nation Cannabis Facilities on Thursday, Feb. 1st.

They were taken on a tour by White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks, Councilmembers George Fox and Eugene Sommers, White Earth Government Relations Coordinator Laura Lee Erickson and the CEO of their cannabis operations, Zach Wilson.

The LCO group were able to learn about all aspects of their grow and dispensary operation, touring their facilities and making connections with White Earth leadership on any possible future partnerships or assistance.

Also accompanying Trepanier and Bisonette on the tour were LCO Attorney General James Schlender Jr. and Thi Li, a THC and Hemp consultant working with the LCO Tribe since beginning their Hemp operations several years ago.

Trepanier said the group made some great connections and had a great opportunity to meet with White Earth leadership and tour their facilities and learn a lot about how they operate.

“We got to see the nuts and bolts of their grow production,” Trepanier added.

Bisonette said it was very educational and really a good thing for LCO representatives to be able to see how they do it.

“They are way ahead on this and were already doing medicinal when Minnesota legalized cannabis,” Bisonette said. “It’s very lucrative and will eventually expand our economic base. There’s a lot of money to be made and with that, we may be able to use it to address our housing issues.”

Trepanier said last month at the LCO General Membership Meeting that he has been working really hard at getting the hemp program off the ground. He attended a Chippewa Federation Meeting in December and added other Tribes are really in support of their own cannabis and hemp operations.

“We are going to be moving fast. We are a little behind right now, but an indoor grow production facility is being looked at. A facility would be 10,000 sq ft.,” Trepanier explained. “We’ve also been looking at a dispensary for when we do start growing. We currently have a feasibility study helping us to look at all these options.”

Trepanier said LCO is in talks with other Tribes about doing something together and this will help keep the costs down for all Tribes involved, he added.

Trepanier said the State of Wisconsin is looking at medicinal but only five state licenses will be granted.

“We don’t have to follow the state on this, and we’ll do our own licensing once that happens,” Trepanier said. “The important thing for us is that we already have our Codes for regulation in place.”

LCO has spent the last few years in hemp production learning and setting up an Agricultural Department, passing ordinances and preparing for when the state passes cannabis.

White Earth Operations

Following the White Earth tour, Thi Li presented a report to the TGB about the trip and made a few recommendations on how LCO should proceed. In her report, she stated the White Earth Nation operates one of two adult-use dispensaries in the State of MN (the other is operated by Red Lake Nation), with a hold on the market until at least mid-2024 as the State establishes its Office of Cannabis Management for adult-use cannabis regulation and licensing.

Bill Trepanier in MCCC office where this signs explains the self-certification medical program

“The White Earth Reservation Business Committee (RBC) enacted a medical cannabis code in 2021 followed by an adult-use cannabis code in 2023, authorizing the use of cannabis and establishing the Medicinal Cannabis Control Commission as an independent body to oversee compliance with the cannabis code, serve as a licensing authority, and designate provisions for the medical program.”

Thi Li explained that the MCCC established a self-certification medical program in which applicants fill out a simple form and, following approval, receive a photo-ID medical card valid for 3 years. The medical card offers discounted prices at Waabigwan Mishkiki dispensary as well as other benefits.

“MCCC is developing a pathway for reciprocity that will recognize White Earth medical cards at other medical cannabis dispensaries,” Thi Li added.

Waabigwan Mashkiki Dispensary

Waabigwan Mashkiki is a 600 sq ft dispensary building enclosed within a secure fence. Upon entry you must provide your ID to verify age and for basic data collection, this is a standard requirement in every single dispensary. This dispensary has provided 15 new jobs.

Thi Li’s report goes on to say, “Waabigwan Mashkiki currently only offers smokable cannabis in the form of flower and pre-rolled flower. Their cannabis is directly sourced from the cultivation facility located behind the dispensary. They also sell accessories and merchandise. Orders and payments are taken by budtenders on the floor. Purchases are delivered through a drive-through-like window at the back of the dispensary.”

Waabigwan Mashkiki Cultivation Facility

Thi Li reported the RBC purchased a 40,000 sq ft chip factory and retrofitted it with cultivation equipment for indoor cannabis cultivation. This cultivation facility is directly behind the dispensary, but is separated by secure fencing (e.g., unauthorized persons cannot directly access the facility from the dispensary). There is an intercom that bars entry into the facility parking lot. Upon entry you must sign in and wear a visitors badge. Before entering the cultivation area you are required to don clean lab coats, shoe booties or cleaned crocs, and hairnets to reduce contamination.

“There are about 50 staff members who work in the facility as managers, cultivators, trimmers, and packagers,” Thi Li said.

Future plans

Thi Li told the TGB that part of future planning at White Earth includes outdoor cultivation. They are expanding their operation to include outdoor or greenhouse cultivation. This will provide material for smokable flowers and biomass for oil extraction (“soil to oil”).

White Earth is also planning an extraction and processing facility which will begin processing biomass for extract and diversify their product options.

“They are currently conducting research and development on live rosin, a solventless concentrate that is considered a high-end product due to its intensive process. Once their facility is operational, they will use ethanol and hydrocarbon extraction methods to produce THC extract for concentrates, edibles, sublingual tinctures, and other consumables,” Thi Li reported.

The State of MN has strict provisions on extraction methods, especially those that use volatile solvents such as butane (because there are risks of explosion and safety concerns for consumers if the process is not done correctly). White Earth and other Tribes may be the only processing facilities that utilize hydrocarbon solvent extraction. This opens the opportunity for toll processing THC extract within the State of MN.

White Earth future planning also includes consultation services.

“White Earth has been strongly positioned in the Tribal cannabis industry. They are developing a consulting package for other Tribes who seek to venture into cannabis cultivation,” Thi Li wrote in her report.

Some observations Thi Li made about the facility included fully taking advantage of the fact that the State of MN will not be able to license other cultivators, processors, or retailers until mid-2024 (likely 2025 based on other states’ experience) and making considerable upgrades and expansion to the facility.

“According to Chairman Fairbanks the cultivation facility with its upgrades is worth over $40 million dollars,” Thi Li said.

Other observations included prioritized hiring experts who come from the cannabis cultivation background. Zach and his team of managers are very knowledgeable about the cultivation process and cannabis industry. She said they are also prioritizing areas where automation can make them more efficient.

Thi Li Recommendations

According to Thi Li, White Earth is certainly establishing a stronghold in the cannabis industry, especially in the State of MN.

“Even moreso, they are generous in sharing their process and experience; Chairman Fairbanks offered guidance and recommendations for LCO to move forward,” Thi Li added.

She said LCO needs to do something or else the State of WI will assume LCO won’t do anything and will accept the State’s little-to-nothing cannabis program.

“Take the State of MN as an example. Their adult-use legalization bill was signed by Gov. Walz on May 30, 2023 and put into effect August 1, 2023. Red Lake Nation was able to open their doors the very day adult-use was legal, with White Earth following a few days after,” Thi Li said. “LCO needs to be in that exact position, but unless we begin sooner than later LCO will miss the opportunity to be first to market and lead the charge in adult-use cannabis across the State.”

Thi Li went on to say whatever LCO seeks to do in marijuana should be put in place and operated through hemp, for right now.

 “It will take at least one to two years to be operational and work out some of the kinks,” Thi Li said. “It’s prudent to get all of the facilities, equipment, systems, SOPs, and positions in place and ready to transition to marijuana when the time comes. Note that cannabinoid hemp will likely not provide a return on investment and should be considered as part of the overall investment for marijuana operations.”

Thi Li outlined several phases of her recommendation for hemp and cannabis going forward as follows:

PHASE 0: Networking

● In addition to operating through LCO Tribal code within the Reservation, LCO can be positioned to service the State of WI through various supply chain operations such as processing, testing, product formulation, research, and partnerships.

● Continually develop plans for expanding operations and activities. The industry will continue to grow as more states, and eventually the federal government, legalize cannabis. Long-term planning should consider all opportunities for economic development and industry expansion within LCO and through potential partnerships with external entities/communities. Some things to consider:

■ Destination dispensaries – education, adult amusement, lounge, etc.

■ Tours – consulting services for private or governmental groups, research partnerships and apprenticeships with institutions and community members, etc.

■ Venue – retreats, venue rental, concerts/festivals, etc.

PHASE I: Preparation (4-12 weeks)

There should be at least 3 layers to the cannabis program: 1) TGB as the authorizing body for cannabis regulation, 2) a Cannabis Commission as the regulatory and licensing body, and 3) business entities for all cannabis-related business and operations.

The Cannabis Commission establishes provisions for a self-certification medical program. The State of WI will likely legalize medical cannabis before adult-use. It’s prudent to remain available for this opportunity. This will also establish regulatory precedence and medical program for other substances that may be used for medical purposes in the future (i.e., psychoactive pharmaceuticals such as psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, MDMA, MDA, ketamine, ibogaine, etc.).

LCO establishes a business entity that will pursue cannabis business. This business will apply for a license from the Cannabis Commission and abide by the provisions outlined in the cannabis code and by the Cannabis Commission.

PHASE II: Business planning (4-12 weeks)

The business entity should establish a business plan for cultivation through retail. It is important to hire people/agencies that are experienced in this area. There may be multiple contractors as part of the business planning process; there may also be overlap in consultants/vendors for several components. A cultivation facility; cultivation operations; dispensary; marketing, branding, and products.


PHASE III: Operational Cultivation and Dispensary (6-18 months)

Construct cultivation facility; cultivate cannabinoid hemp; construct dispensary and operate with marketing/branding efforts. Can begin white-labeling hemp products under a LCO brand: smokable flower, concentrates, edibles, tinctures, topicals, merchandise, etc.

PHASE IV: Conversion to marijuana

Implement Cannabis Commission; upgrade/implement business plan for marijuana cultivation and retail.

Additional Considerations

The information and recommendations included in this document are tailored for cannabis cultivation and retailing. As mentioned, I think it’s important for LCO to do something, but I also encourage LCO to explore pursuing several ventures in parallel, if appropriate.

● There are opportunities for industrial hemp fiber and seed production.

● There is an opportunity and need for operating an agricultural testing laboratory. This could lead to an exclusive partnership and/or service in the State of WI as it is a crucial component in the cannabis supply chain. If LCO operates a testing facility that can service cannabis and develop a partnership with the State of WI or other cultivators / processors / retailers when the State legalizes. For perspective, there are only a handful of testing facilities in the State of WI for hemp, and only one that is DEA registered. This agricultural testing facility can also service other tests such as water, soil, microbes, mycotoxins, heavy metals, pesticide/herbicide residue, solvent residue, etc.

● The Tribes in WI are in a unique position since we operate within a State that has not legalized cannabis beyond hemp. Furthermore, the State has proven uncooperative in their proposed legislation thus far. If Tribes pursue marijuana operations they will have to do so in isolation, which is a costly and risky endeavor. Instead, Tribes in WI can work together to develop an indigenously-integrated operation that will alleviate some of the cost burdens, widen industry establishment, and fortify Tribal cannabis. Again, set it up for hemp, transition or incorporate marijuana. Additionally, in collaboration with other regional Tribes who already operate within legal states, we can avoid those early mishaps.

From L-R) David Bisonette, Laura Lee Erickson, Bill Trepanier, Thi Li, White Earth council members George Fox and Eugene Sommers, White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks and LCO AG James Schlender Jr.


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