Administration Encourages Tribes to Grow Pot on Reservations

The Obama Justice Department is extending the same courtesy to tribal reservations that it currently gives to states when it comes to enforcement of federal drug laws, and is opening up a can of worms that many Indian tribes would prefer remain closed.

Some Indian tribes are not amused by the Obama administration’s proposal to allow marijuana to be grown and sold on the reservation.

According to Troy Eid, chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission, “We actually have no idea what’s going on here. What we do know is that, for unknown reasons, there has been no consultation between the administration and tribes as to what they want to do. It’s a very unusual gap in how this president has approached things.”

The Justice Department last week announced that it will now treat Indian reservations the same way that it treats states that have decriminalized marijuana use. Although federal law criminalizes pot smoking, the DOJ has decided that it won’t aggressively push the point when federal law clashes with state law—and now tribal law.

It will, however, continue to enforce drug laws when it pertains to organized crime, just as it does with states that have legalized marijuana use.

Oddly, no tribe is willing to take credit for being the one that asked the Justice Department to make this ruling, and only one tribe, the Mohegans of Connecticut, has said that it plans to take the feds up on the offer.

Eid, who represents dozens of Indian tribes, says more of them are worried than relieved about the new interpretation of the law, which they see as a way for the federal government to sidestep its duty of enforcing drug laws.

Most would prefer that the drug laws be briskly enforced to deal with an old and enduring problem of substance addiction on the reservation.

William Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the department says that tribes will be treated as governments. He added, “Some tribes are very concerned with public safety implications, such as the impact on youth, and the use of tribal lands for the cultivation or transport of marijuana, while others have explored decriminalization and other approaches.”

Many Indians regard Obama as the best friend they have ever had in the White House. When he was running for president Obama told them, “I get it. I’m on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider.”

Administration has done more than any other administration to encourage tribes to get into gaming by putting land into trust. It opened up floodgates that had been largely plugged up under the administration of George W. Bush, especially to tribes attempting to put lands acquired off of the reservation into trust.

The issue is sure to spark debate among tribes such as the Navajo, where there was much soul-searching before it joined other tribes in building casinos, and even more debate before alcohol sales were allowed on the reservation-operated facilities.

Edmund Yazzie, director of the Navajo Nation Council’s Law and Order Committee declared last week that he would oppose any action by the Navajo Nation’s president to allow the growth of medical marijuana on tribal lands. “Criminal activity is just going to go up more, and drug addiction is going to go up more, and everyone is going to be affected,” he said.

Unlike tobacco, which is part of the traditions of many tribes, marijuana has no such connection to Native religion. Carl Artman, a former assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who was interviewed by the Associated Press, “When you look at what tribes have to offer—from gaming to ecotourism to looking out over the Grand Canyon, just bringing people out on the reservation for art or culture—this is not one of the things they would normally want. It hearkens back to something that’s archaic and stereotypical as opposed to what the modern day Indian is about.”

But Lance Morgan, who heads an Indian law firm in Nebraska says that he has been approached by about a dozen tribes who want to explore getting into the marijuana business.

Tribes in states that have already decriminalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, have been talking about getting into the business for several months.

Some questions remain to be ironed out, among them whether the federal government will permit reservation-grown pot to be transported across state lines and whether it will be subject to taxation.