Many in Indian Country are wary of the idea of growing and selling marijuana on tribal lands, even if it could present an economic windfall and the U.S. Department of Justice says it's OK.
"I would really doubt tribes would be wanting to do something like that," said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon, where voters this year approved a measure to legalize recreational pot. "We have an alcohol- and drug-free policy at work. It would just not be something we would be looking for into the future."
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The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it has adopted a new policy saying Indian tribes, which are considered sovereign nations, can grow and sell marijuana on tribal lands as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall said the policy addresses questions raised by tribes about how legalization of pot in states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado would apply to Indian lands.
"That's been the primary message tribes are getting to us as U.S. attorneys," Marshall said from Portland. "What will the U.S. as federal partners do to assist tribes in protecting our children and families, our tribal businesses, our tribal housing? How will you help us combat marijuana abuse in Indian Country when states are no longer there to partner with us?"
Whether tribal pot could become a major bonanza rivaling tribal casinos is a big question. Marshall said only three tribes — one each in California, Washington state and the Midwest — have voiced any interest. She did not identify them.
Seattle attorney Anthony Broadman, whose firm represents tribal governments throughout the West, said the economic potential is vast. "If tribes can balance all the potential social issues, it could be a really huge opportunity," Broadman said.
Many in Indian Country are wary.
The Yakama Nation in Washington state recently banned marijuana on the reservation and is trying to halt state regulated pot sales and grows on lands off the reservation where it holds hunting and fishing rights.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California has battled illegal pot plantations on its reservation that have damaged the environment.
In South Dakota, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council this year rejected a proposal to allow marijuana on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"For me, it's a drug," said Ellen Fills the Pipe, chairwoman of the council's Law and Order Committee. "My gut feeling is we're most likely going to shoot it down."
Marshall warned that problems could arise for tribes with lands in states that outlaw marijuana due to the likelihood that pot would be transported or sold outside tribal boundaries.
Broadman said tribes would enjoy a huge advantage selling pot, as they do with tobacco, because they would not have to charge taxes.
Alison Holcomb, a primary drafter of Washington state's legalization measure, said most people in larger states won't want to drive to far-flung reservations to buy pot.
But John Evich disagreed. He runs a legal marijuana store in Bellingham, Washington, near the Nooksack Indian reservation. When he chewed tobacco, he said, he used to stock up at the reservation because it was about 30 percent cheaper there. He had little doubt people would do the same if tribes began selling pot.
The Nooksack tribes did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Marshall said with 566 tribes around the country recognized by the federal government, there will be a lot of consulting between tribal leaders and federal prosecutors. Some tribes have their own police, some rely on federal law enforcement, and some call in state and local police.
With limited resources, federal prosecutors will not prosecute minor cases, Marshall said.
The tribal policy is based on an August 2013 Justice Department announcement that the federal government wouldn't intervene as long as pot legalization states tightly regulate the drug, keep it from children and criminal cartels and prevent sales to states that outlaw it, among other measures.
Wozniacka reported from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press writers Eugene Johnson in Seattle and James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this story.