U.S. states aren’t the only ones leading the way in marijuana reform; in recent months, several Native American tribes have also taken steps to legalize pot.
It started late last year with a memorandum from the Department of Justice. Sent in response to questions from a tribe in Washington state (where of course, weed is legal), the memo essentially said that Uncle Sam would not enforce marijuana laws on sovereign tribal land — giving them the same freedom the states have to set their own drug policy.
While the message might have been intended for tribes whose surrounding states had already legalized weed, it also has implications for more than 500 other federally recognized tribes. Dozens of tribes from across the country attended forums and expressed an interest in marijuana as a possible source of medicine and revenue.
A tribe in South Dakota was among the first to test the waters. On June 11th, the Flandreaux Santee Sioux Indians voted to legalize marijuana on their lands. They have plans to start a sizable grow operation and even an Amsterdam-style pot lounge, which could be up and running by the end of the year.
But then on July 8th, the DEA raided tribal lands in California, seizing 100 lbs. of pot and thousands of plants. The land was owned by the Pit River tribe, who had set up dozens of greenhouses right alongside CA highway 395, in plain view of passing traffic.
The grow-op was supposedly approved by the tribal council back in February, although that is now in dispute. Feuding among tribal leadership raises questions about the legality of the operation, and even seems to be a major cause of the raid — it was a member of the tribe who informed the Fed and triggered the whole chain of events. But whatever the reason for the raid, it has caused a great deal of fear and uncertainty in many other tribes who had also been considering legalization.
Nevertheless, in August the Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin voted in favor of recreational and medicinal pot use in their territory. The tribal council is now in the planning and researching stage, exploring the logistics, potential revenue and other benefits for the tribe. Other Wisconsin area tribes are also considering legalization, including the Red Cliff and Sakoagan tribes, which have passed similar referendums.
What happens to these few brave tribes who accept the risks of being the first to legalize pot, will largely determine how many follow in their footsteps. As the July raid clearly demonstrates, a memorandum is not a law. And until the U.S. government reforms it’s drug policy, there is still the looming possibility of raids, arrests, prosecution and imprisonment.
And for the tribes, the loss of much-needed federal funds.