NEW YORK (MainStreet) - In a major move forward at the end of the year and what may herald a new day at the Department of Justice with regards to overall marijuana policy, DOJ has now ruled that Native Americans will be allowed to grow and sell marijuana on reservation lands.
The new policy will allow tribes who wish to grow the plant to do so under "robust and effective regulatory systems," per John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado.
The implications, economically for Indian Tribes and overall for national reform, are huge.
From an economic development perspective, this is a valuable boon for areas of land whose only real economic boost for at least the last twenty years has come from the casino business. Reservation lands are considered separate "sovereign" states under federal law, although this policy, particularly under the dictates of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), has historically been enforced at the whims of political dictates within the current administration.
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"Tribal leaders throughout the country will have a tremendous opportunity to improve public health and safety, as well as benefit economically," said Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It would bring significant revenue and new jobs to these communities."
Even now, however, any one of the 326 federally recognized American Indian Reservations (including those in and around states where marijuana is not legal or only legal for medical use) must obtain a review of tribal marijuana policies from the Department of Justice.
Native Americans also have a long history that many tribes have also sought to maintain as part of cultural revival and renaissance that includes reliance on alternative and herbal medicine. The tribes also have a long legal history with the federal United States on the use of the same, including Peyote which is used for religious purposes in many tribes still.
The impact that this development will also have on both the national debate and the growth of the marijuana business (both medical and recreational) cannot be overstated. In New York, for example, where Governor Cuomo has slowed the pace of reform against the opinion of the majority of voters, the Oneida reservation (one of the largest reservations on the East Coast and bitterly contested until the last decade) could become a source of legal marijuana for New Yorkers sick of state hypocrisy. The same is true of Florida. The impact of Indian grown marijuana and hemp on states like Nevada and California is also expected to be large.
Furthermore, in other Western States with traditionally large and organized Indian tribes and tribal leadership, from Montana and Idaho to Nevada and Colorado, the impact of the native industry could be significant from a number of fronts including innovation and most certainly competition. Many tribes now sell cigarettes tax free on reservations across the country. It is certainly likely that this development could create a similar model.
Some have mentioned historically high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse on reservations as one reason for concern for the new day of reason at the Department of Justice. That said, such comments so far have come from non-Indians and those who discount the reality that marijuana, particularly when used medically, is not "addictive." Furthermore, the jolt in the arm that a thriving marijuana business could give the long economically depressed tribes will go far in beginning to address a root cause of many social issues suffered by American Indians for at least the beginning of the creation of the reservation system itself over 200 years ago.
"It's significant that the Justice Department is choosing to take more of a hands-off approach to enforcing federal marijuana laws on sovereign indigenous land," said Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the national patients' rights organization Americans for Safe Access. "That said, there's an argument that native people should be unencumbered by this kind of federal enforcement without policy pronouncements from the Obama administration. This patchwork approach to enforcement can only last so long before the federal government is forced by advocates to develop a consistent, equitable policy of disengagement on federal marijuana laws in the U.S."
--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet