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New West Daily Roundup for Sept. 7, 2016

Today in New West news: veterans guarding Colorado marijuana shops and Montana Native Americans studying health of tribe members across state.

Marijuana has become a big industry in the state of Colorado, to put it mildly. In 2015, marijuana sales crested nearly $1 billion, with many projecting even bigger gains this year. It’s not easy money, however. It’s a mainly cash business, as no credit union can legally deal with marijuana distributors since it’s prohibited at the federal level. And growing enough marijuana to meet retail demand is energy- and capital-intensive—complicated by the fact that marijuana plants and product is a lucrative prize for thieves.

Enter veterans like Chris Bowyer of the Marine Corps who, according to the New York Times, have found new work as guards at burgeoning Colorado dispensaries and shops:

For some, a cannabis security job is a way station toward the police department or law school. For others, though, it is a vocation with purpose, a union of two outsider groups leaning on each other in a nation uncertain about how to accept them.

“It’s almost a kindred spirit kind of thing,” said Mr. Bowyer, 30, sitting in an office with a computer, a bulletproof vest and a booklet detailing marijuana products marketed under the name Jimi Hendrix. Marijuana growers and sellers “recognize that there is another group of guys who have their own talents,” he said, “and that we are here for them.”

No industry is immune to thievery. But the owners of Colorado’s 978 marijuana shop licenses and 1,393 marijuana grow licenses are particularly vulnerable. Because the federal government considers marijuana illegal, many banks won’t work with cannabis businesses, forcing them to deal in mountains of cash.

Perhaps more significant, their product is also lucrative for criminals: A pound of marijuana worth $2,000 in Colorado can be sold for $4,000 or $6,000 across state lines. Stores and grow houses are often soft targets in darkened parts of town. And unlike cash, marijuana is untraceable, easily sold on Craigslist or driven to dealers in Chicago and New York.

“The black market is still booming,” said Cmdr. James Henning of the Denver Police Department. Contrary to the popular narrative, marijuana is a burglar’s typical prize. “They don’t get cash,” the commander said. “That’s usually in the big old safe, and they can’t get into that. Usually, it’s plants and finished product.”


Denver, one of the few jurisdictions compiling data on crimes at marijuana businesses, has 421 pot-growing houses and shops. It recorded 192 burglaries and thefts at such businesses in 2015. In Aurora, a suburb with 19 operating pot shops, 18 burglaries and robberies have occurred since 2014.

But some business owners do not report break-ins, because they worry that they will be seen as targets or attract inspectors who will find a violation.

Criminals have netted anything from a few marijuana-laced sodas to a quarter-million dollars in plants. In June, much worse occurred: Two armed men entered a pot shop in Aurora, called Green Heart, and killed a guard, Travis Mason. The police called it a botched robbery.

Mr. Mason, 24, a former Marine and father of three, was believed to be the first cannabis employee to die on the job in Colorado, and the episode alarmed the industry. Some security businesses reported a rush of requests for armed guards.

“Thieves in this industry are getting much more brazen, much more aggressive,” said Ryan Tracy, 38, general manager at the Herbal Cure, which now has a guard on duty every night.

Browyer, described as a “bookish Episcopalian” who lost his faith in the military, felt adrift after leaving the military. Eventually, he found his way to Colorado and joined the Iron Protection Group, a Denver-based security agency that caters almost exclusively to marijuana growers and retail operations, composed of veterans like Browyer.

Shifting gears, up in Montana, a group of researchers at the Blackfeet Community College are tackling an issue very dear to their hearts: why do Native Americans in Montana live, on average, 20 years fewer than their Montanan counterparts? Colbi Kipp, 29, told the Billings Gazette he hopes the answer lies in a cooler full of saliva and blood samples taken from people on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation:

“The big goal in this is always the intervention, right?” he said. “We find out what the problem is. We find out what’s giving our people high stress. What is it in our environment that we can relate to these biomarkers? And that’s going to show what it is exactly that is leading to high levels of cancers and depression, high levels of suicides and substance abuse. That’s what this is about. We’re going to do whatever we can by whatever means we can to stop that.”

The research project is one of many ways that Montana tribes leverage resources and sovereignty to improve the health of their communities. Leaders say they can’t wait for the U.S. Congress to reform the Indian Health Service or for federal officials to meet goals to enroll more Native Americans in subsidized insurance plans.

The cost of delays are too high. American Indians live 20 fewer years than other Montanans because of health disparities, according to a state analysis.

“We’re losing generations,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Health Director Kevin Howlett said.

Tribes have created clinics of their own and launched hybrid health and social service programs. Tribal health directors have banded together to demand better access to state services. And a $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will soon fund first-of-its-kind medical research on best practices for treating Native Americans, a 5-year program that includes building upon emergent research facilities at state and tribal colleges.

Tribes have operated targeted health programs for decades, but interest has grown in recent years. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a rider on the Affordable Care Act, permanently authorized the IHS Tribal Self-Governance Program, in which tribes contract to take over IHS operations like diabetes management or ambulance service. The program was created in 1988 as an extension of a federal self-determination law that came out of the frustrations of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. More tribes than ever now participate and self-governance has been the buzz of recent Native American health conferences.

In the past, tribes had been hesitant, in part, wondering whether Congress would maintain or scrap the program. Some waited for other tribes to develop clear models for success. Others have been bound by community uncertainties about whether tribal politics would interfere with smooth, fair operations.

“People talk about what’s wrong with the health care system but don’t want to do the work,” said Howlett, who helped form the Confederated Salish and Kootenai health department in 1977 as its first director.

In 1993, the tribe in northwest Montana was one of the first in the nation to take over programs under the self-governance program. After serving on council and in other leadership roles, Howlett returned in 2002 as the tribe began to provide direct health services through clinics it managed itself, adding 70 new clinical positions.

“In 1977, I hoped we’d be able to, by political will, be able to make a difference,” he said. “It’s been enormous change and I think a lot of people take it for granted. We still have difficult decisions to make, but we’re on the right track.”

Other health departments on reservations across Montana are similarly optimistic, especially after the creation of the Montana Office of American Indian Health in April, although the disparities in care represent an immense challenge to a network of communities routinely relegated to the periphery of American life.

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