(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles written as part of the 2015 Carnegie-Knight News21 national student reporting project on the legalization of marijuana.)
Most Native American tribes are not moving to legalize and grow marijuana on their reservations — although at least two are poised to try — more than six months after the Justice Department suggested in a memo that federal authorities likely would not interfere.
Many tribes exploring their options said that, as U.S. citizens and sovereign nations, they deserve the right to choose to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use, as a growing number of states have done. However, tribal leaders said they continue to worry about the vague language of the Justice Department’s “Cole Memorandum.”
“The stakes are high and the consequences could be disastrous.”
The memo notes that nothing in it “alters the authority or jurisdiction of the United States to enforce federal law in Indian country” but leaves it to federal prosecutors to prioritize enforcement based on factors like distribution to minors, trafficking with criminal enterprises, drugged driving and possession of marijuana on federal property.
“This is not the position of the entire federal government. It’s very complicated,” said tribal attorney Lael Echo Hawk, of the GSB Indian Law group based in Seattle. “Tribes interested need to get some written assurance from their district attorney because possessing a Schedule I controlled substance carries serious penalties and is not something to be taken lightly.”
“If tribes don’t do this right, their situation could get a lot worse,” said Robert Williams, director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The stakes are high and the consequences could be disastrous.”
Domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide rates on Native American reservations are many times higher than the national average. Additional problems include poor housing and education systems. While some tribal leaders believe legalizing marijuana could exacerbate some of these problems, others view marijuana as an economic opportunity to reclaim financial independence and improve the quality of life for their people.
“From a social standpoint, Natives have some of the highest percentages of the worst categories in this country in terms of suicide, drug abuse, child mortality… indicators of a society in decline,” said Brandon Cornelison, of the Facebook group Native American Cannabis Coalition and a member of the Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa. He supports legalization, saying, “Something has to change.”
Tribes that favor legalization believe they could generate much-needed revenue — with sales on reservations not subject to federal taxes — through innovative business and pharmaceutical ventures. Multiple companies have expressed interest in working with tribes in developing large-scale marijuana operations.
The Pinoleville Pomo Tribe in California plans to build a medical marijuana grow operation in Mendocino. And the Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has decided to legalize and start selling marijuana by next year. Neither tribe would comment on their plans.
Matt Bear, a member of the Meskwaki tribe of Iowa, said legalization presents an opportunity because Iowa currently has no outlets for medical marijuana.
“Patients need to travel four to twelve hours, to Colorado or Minnesota, to gain their medication,” Bear said. “The tribe could take advantage of this opportunity for economic development and also provide a very stable and much needed pharmaceutical.”
Medical marijuana, its supporters say, is safer than using opiates for chronic pain. Shondel Barber, of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe in Wisconsin, said she would rather see people taking medical marijuana for pain than heroin or Vicodin and added that the revenue generated from marijuana could help the tribe.
“There have been so many cutbacks on so many programs,” she said. “Our schools need money, our Boys and Girls Club needs money, we need a bigger clinic. If we had more money, we would be able to provide more for people.”
Other tribal leaders said they worry legalization could further increase high rates of drug use among Native Americans.
“We’re already dealing with substance abuse,” said Attorney General Alfred Urbina of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Even if legalizing marijuana could help tribes, Urbina said, the Cole Memorandum should serve only as a guide. “It’s a policy decision, not a change in the law.”
Some leaders said participating in the marijuana industry may have other risks, including the loss of federal funding.
“Each time a tribe agrees to accept federal funding, they also agree not to violate federal law,” said attorney Echo Hawk a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “Engaging in the industry, which is a violation of the Federal Controlled Substance Act, could lead to a federal agency freezing funding to that tribe.”