Tribes weigh issues with pot business

Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. – — The Navajo Nation had bitter debates when it was deciding whether to allow casinos on the reservation and if alcohol should be sold in them. The arguments focused on the revenue and jobs casinos and liquor could bring to a place where half the workforce is unemployed and most arrests and pervasive social ills are linked to alcohol abuse.

When the federal government announced this month that it would let American Indian tribes grow and sell marijuana, divisive discussions resurfaced. The tribal president’s office talked of expanding crops to include pot for medicinal but not recreational use, while a tribal lawmaker quickly declared his opposition.

“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,” said Edmund Yazzie, head of the Navajo Nation Council’s Law and Order Committee.

The split reaction among Navajo leaders reflects divisions on reservations around the country. While the Navajo and a number of other tribes ultimately ventured into the casino business, many say they’re inclined to avoid marijuana as a potential revenue booster amid deep sensitivity over rampant alcoholism, poverty, crime and joblessness on tribal lands.

Marijuana isn’t tied to tribal culture, like tobacco commonly used in religious ceremonies, and any pot growing operation would run counter to the message that tribes have preached for decades that drugs and alcohol ruin lives, said Carl Artman, former U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs assistant secretary and member of the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin.

But it has piqued the interest of some of the country’s 566 federally recognized tribes, including tribes in Washington, the Dakotas, Connecticut and Colorado, as well as the Navajo Nation, which stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Lance Morgan, a member of the Winnebago Tribe who manages an Indian law firm in Nebraska, said he’s had about a dozen requests from tribes looking for a legal framework for getting into the marijuana business. The poverty rate for American Indian and Alaska Natives in 2010 was 28 percent, according to Census data, but it can be much greater in individual tribal communities.

But he said tribes are treading carefully and believes most of them will decide against getting into the marijuana business.

Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota and South Dakota, said his tribe might consider cultivating marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp, but the federal government would have to allow interstate transport for it to be a profitable venture. Hemp is used to make clothing, lotion and other products, but growing it is illegal under federal law.

In Colorado and Washington state, which legalized recreational pot in 2012, some tribes got a head start on talks about marijuana sales.

North of Seattle, the Tulalip Tribe has voted to pursue discussions on allowing medical marijuana, tribal spokeswoman Niki Cleary said. The tribe’s values have been evolving, she said, noting even a vote on medical pot would have resulted in an automatic “no” in the past.

The owner of one of the country’s largest resort casinos, the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, didn’t rule it out either. Spokesman Chuck Bunnell said the tribe is looking at opportunities to expand into new markets.

Among the questions tribes still have regarding the industry is whether limits would be placed on how much marijuana could be grown and sold, whether it can be transported off reservations and if taxes apply.