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Native American Tribes See Profit — And Pitfalls — In New Legal Weed Rules

Tribes are weighing the potential economic benefits of the new Department of Justice pot policy over the potential social and environmental harms.
Photo by Patrick Foy/AP

Native American tribes have expressed mixed sentiments about new Department of Justice (DOJ) rules that will allow them to grow and sell marijuana on their lands, tax-free.

Some of the 566 tribes recognized by the federal government will face intense internal debate in coming weeks on whether or not they should take advantage of the policy. Many remain skeptical about whether or not the economic potential of marijuana would outweigh the pitfalls, including the vast social and environmental implications of growing the drug.


While cannabis sales remain illegal under federal law, under the DOJ memorandum announced this week, Native Americans now won't be prosecuted for growing and selling the drug on sovereign lands if they follow federal guidelines already issued to states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, the latter of which legalized recreational marijuana this year.

"People who I've spoken to are excited about this, but along with that excitement there is a lot of caution that stems from tribal history with alcohol and substance abuse," Seattle-based lawyer Anthony Broadman, whose firm, Galanda Broadman, represents a range of tribal councils across Western states, told VICE News.

"The biggest issue is if tribes are going to want to use a drug as a way to make money," he said. "The history of Indian tribes and substance is not a pretty one."

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Tribes like Washington state's Yakama Nation are likely to retain a hardline stance against drugs. The Yakama council previously banned marijuana across all 1.2 million acres of its reservation after the state legalized the drug in 2012, in an effort to curb drug use. It has similarly waged a long battle to keep alcohol off the reservation. This year, the tribe moved to extend the pot ban to a further 12 million acres of ceded ancestral land, to which it still holds fishing and hunting rights.

Other Native American councils, like the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council in South Dakota, have moved against proposals to grow cannabis on tribal lands. California's Hoopa Valley Tribe actively works with local law enforcement to eradicate marijuana grown illegally on its reservation, motivated by environmental concerns caused by garbage, irrigation lines, pesticides, fertilizers, and rodenticides.


Council members of these tribes did not immediately return calls from VICE News.

"In northern and central California there are tribes dealingwith illegal growth that has horrible effects on water from fertilizer run-off," Broadman said. "The cartels will also do things like drop off five guys and leave them there over the summer to grow, and the waste from that also has an impact."

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Oregon US Attorney Amanda Marshall, who was involved in drafting the policy, told the Associated Press Thursday that only three tribes — one each in California, Washington State, and the Midwest — have so far expressed interest in cultivating cannabis.

Under the DOJ memorandum, any pot growth on tribal land would still be regulated by federal laws, which among other requirements, bans the sale of cannabis to minors and criminal networks, and prohibits the transportation of the drug to areas where pot is still illegal — in other words, tribes could not take it off their reservations.

Since the pot grown on tribal lands, however, it is not subject to federal or state tax, it would be cheaper than the buds for sale elsewhere in states that have legalized growth. That could mean big savings off the regular price of cannabis in states like Washington, where taxes bump up the price of pot by 25 percent.

Some legal experts have expressed doubts that smokers would travel long distances to some reservations to buy their green. Lawyer Alison Holcomb, who was involved in drafting Washington's marijuana laws, told the AP that "so much of the market depends on convenience; it's not just price that drives consumer choices."

But Broadman disagrees, pointing once again to the tobacco model, which has been a hugely successful industry for tribes.

"We know that people will drive and stock up on tobacco and we know smokers will buy cheaper cigarettes on reservations," he said. "If people who use marijuana recreationally can get tax advantage, they're going to travel wherever they need to go."

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Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields