The first cannabis dispensary signs appear almost immediately after being greeted by this sign. Credit: St. Regis Mohawk Official Photo

Tucked away in a rural corner of upstate New York, straddling the U.S.-Canada border, and 90 minutes south of Montreal, is a growing mecca of legal cannabis on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, known as Akwesasne to the locals.

Because the reservation is federally recognized as sovereign land, by both the United States and Canada, it exists within a legal gray area that technically makes it possible for Canadian-made cannabis to enter the United States without passing through customs. 

Last week I traveled to the area based on a rumor that the tribal dispensaries were selling Canadian product. New York State Route 37 cuts through the southern portion of the reservation for ten miles before heading north to the Canadian border, along which there are easily about two-dozen shops selling cannabis to any traveler with an empty pipe.

Visitors can quickly find a plethora of cannabis products on this 33 square mile patch of native american sovereign land blurring the U.S.-Canada border.

By the time I lost count, I had already identified two-dozen shops across the reservation. Almost all of them were along Route 37. Prices are low and the reservation levies no taxes – a key attraction for cannabis consumers in the middle of nowhere.

Not only that, given the lack of strict regulation, there is a wide variety of products beyond the Two-Looney pre-rolls I found in a shop along the St. Lawrence River. At current exchange rates, that means Americans can get a 0.5 gram joint for US$1.52.

Beyond savings, two shops offered cocktails that were sugary or coffee-based, allowing the consumer to pick their preferred dose, ranging from five milligrams to a brain clouding 2,000 mg. Another shop had a modified Slush Puppy machine: A simple slushie costs $3, but for $10 you can get it with 75 mg of THC. 

Green Reserve offers sugary mixed drinks with your choice of THC dosages. Drinks cost as little as CA$5. Credit: Zack Huffman / Grown In

After a brief survey of shops in the area, I found most places sold grams for $10-$13, though they could be found as inexpensive as $6. You can buy a whole ounce for $80. Edibles can be bought as cheap as $5, while a common offering is 1,000 mg of THC per package – far beyond what most American legal markets offer.

There is also no standard for the type of shop you may encounter. There are tiny shops in over-sized buildings, shops with sparse interiors that did not always match their slick exterior. At least two shops that were closer to the “Apple Store” aesthetic, and at least one operated out of a shipping container. 

Adult use cannabis was legalized by the New York State legislature on March 31, 2021. Since then the state has been busy writing regulations and running a license application process, finally accepting dispensary applications in early August 2022. That means that the first legal adult use sales in New York are months away.

In contrast, the St. Regis Mohawk Council, jumped right into their own round of rule making in April 2021, kicking off their official reservation legal sales on April 15, 2022.

“There are 11 licensed dispensaries and 4 licensed producers,” said Brendan White, spokesperson for the Tribal Council.

But visitors to Akwesasne can easily find at least twice as many shops. 

While the Council only legally recognizes 11 dispensaries, White says some of the first licensed dispensaries had already been operational for months without a license. So it seems that on reservation land, Tribal Council licensing is loosely regulated.

White said the Council plans to bring scofflaws into the fold.

“We want to get them into compliance,” he said.

Legal or not, the growth of the industry is creating new opportunities in an area that had been mostly relying upon revenue from a casino that was hit hard by COVID-19.

I stopped by the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino on a weekday afternoon and found about a hundred seniors slumped in seats enveloped in a sea of arcade slot machines. These people were not likely to be the reservation’s new cannabis customers. which means the reservation has discovered a source of revenue from a new demographic.

Another Rt. 37 dispensary squirreled away in a defunct gas station is Sasta Budz, which is not among the 11 licensed shops recognized by the St. Regis Mohawk Cannabis Control Board. The entire building is a rusted two-story structure with dull and chipping paint, with the exception of the bright green awning and store sign right above the ground floor shop. All along Rt. 37, there are cannabis shops making use of abandoned properties regardless of their size. 

Sasta Budz opened about 1.5 years ago, according to general manager Cole – who declined to give his actual last name.

The dispensary is licensed “through the Longhouse,” Cole explained, and as such they are required to exclusively sell product made on the reservation. Aside from that, they also follow the New York State limit on how much you can sell to an individual. 

“With New York State we gotta tow the line,” said Cole, noting that the quantity limit was the only state cannabis regulation they had to follow. That said, Coles’ shop, like all the others I visited on the reservation, doesn’t use Metrc or any other tracking system to ensure customers aren’t passing daily purchase limits through multiple stores.

Cole said he was not concerned about the rate in which cannabis shops were sprouting up along Route 37, which has become a destination for shoppers looking for a variety of inexpensive weed.

“There’s enough business for everyone. Each shop has their set of regular customers and everybody has their niche,” said Cole. He added that his $80 an ounce flower is very popular, and his shop was also the only one I saw offering clones and immature cannabis plants.

All of the stores I visited sold flower deli style with no pre-packaging.

Sasta Budz featured an assortment of flower between $10-$13 a gram as well as concentrates, and a bunch of different edibles, some of which carried California’s THC warning label. Much like many of the folks working in dispensaries in the area, Cole knew to maintain the party line.

“The best stuff is grown around here. With this soil and all the farmland, it’s been a pot mecca for a long time,” claimed Cole. “Pretty much everything in here is local.”

Eventually I went exploring on the quieter Canadian side. Because I stayed on the reservation, there was no border patrol or customs. The only indication of “crossing over” is that the speed limit switches to kilometers per hour and the stop signs switch to Tésta’n, the Mohawk language.

There I found High End, a dispensary and consumption lounge squeezed into a ground-level space that could have once easily served as a basement for the residential home above it. 

Five or six pre-warmed dab rigs lined a short bar in the corner of the cozy room, which also included a television and four table and chair sets.

Despite being tucked away on a house-filled street, the lounge seems to exist with little concern from locals, and the shop frequently hosts community nights that involve music or painting, says the manager, McKenzie Allen.

High End is one of just a handful of dispensaries set apart from the state highway and main commercial strip, located among residential properties in quieter parts of the reservation. These spots also happened to be the first legal weed shops on the reservation, because they’re on the Canada side, which legalized cannabis on Oct. 17, 2018.

Allen said she had been working there for about a year. Not originally from the reservation, she commutes from nearby Massena, New York. She visited High End as a regular patron a little over a year ago, and before she knew it the owner asked her to work there.

“It was pretty quiet back then, but my friends started showing and they brought more people,” Allen said, while heating up a dab rig with a blow torch for another customer – first timers get one free. There is no strict tracking of the product, so dispensaries frequently give out deals such as a free pre-roll or ounce depending on how much you spend.

St. Regis Flower is a Canada-side dispensary on the reservation. Construction of a marina that would allow shipments from across the St. Lawrence is ongoing. Credit: Zack Huffman / Grown In

Cannabis is legal across Canada, so in theory, one could pick up a bunch of cheap weed, put it on a boat and ship it across the St. Lawrence River to deliver it to the Canada side of the reservation. From there it could easily be moved to one of the many dispensaries in Akwesasne, regardless of whether or not they’re on the U.S. side.

Poking around the Canada-side some more, I stumbled on the St. Regis Flower dispensary. At the end of a gravel road on the shore of the St. Lawrence River, the property included a small marina under construction at the site.

I told the budtender inside that having a marina would probably make it easier to bring in cannabis from across the river in Ontario, Canada.

“That’s the idea,” she said.

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...