GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Indian tribes can grow and sell marijuana on their lands as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.
Some advocates said the announcement could open new markets across the country and give rise to a rich new business on reservations, not unlike the advent of casino gambling. Others said it was too early to tell; many tribes oppose legalization, and only a handful of tribes have expressed any interest in the marijuana business.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall said that the Justice Department policy addresses questions raised by tribes about how legalization of pot in states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado would apply to Indian lands.
“That’s been the primary message tribes are getting to us as U.S. attorneys,” Marshall said from Portland. “What will the U.S. as federal partners do to assist tribes in protecting our children and families, our tribal businesses, our tribal housing? How will you help us combat marijuana abuse in Indian Country when states are no longer there to partner with us?”
Whether tribal pot could become a major bonanza rivaling tribal casinos is a big question. Marshall said only three tribes — one each in California, Washington state and the Midwest — have voiced any interest. She did not identify them.
Seattle attorney Anthony Broadman, whose firm represents tribal governments throughout the West, said the economic potential is vast. “If tribes can balance all the potential social issues, it could be a really huge opportunity,” Broadman said.
But many in Indian Country are wary of compounding existing drug and alcohol problems by growing and selling pot.
The Yakama Nation in Washington state recently banned marijuana on the reservation and is trying to halt state regulated pot sales and grows on lands off the reservation where it still holds hunting and fishing rights. The Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California has battled illegal pot plantations on its reservation that have damaged the environment.
In South Dakota, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council this year rejected a proposal to allow marijuana.
Oglala Sioux tribal Councilwoman Ellen Fills the Pipe, chairwoman of the council’s Law and Order Committee, said Thursday she needs to review the federal policy more thoroughly but that given her long background in law enforcement, she opposes loosening marijuana laws.
“For me, it’s a drug,” Fills the Pipe said. “My gut feeling is we’re most likely going to shoot it down.”
In Oregon, former Klamath Tribes chairman Jeff Mitchell said communities everywhere deal with drug and alcohol issues, and tribes are likely to proceed carefully.
“I have confidence in tribal government that they will deal with it appropriately and they’ll take into consideration social and legal aspects, as well as other implications that go along with bringing something like that into a community,” Mitchell said.
Marshall warned that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Problems could arise for tribes with lands in states that outlaw marijuana due to the likelihood that pot would be transported or sold outside tribal boundaries, she said.
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