WASHINGTON: While a patchwork of state laws have given marijuana quasi-legal status in 24 states, status on many tribal lands remains prohibited, or at best uncertain. Many tribes are content to adhere to federal prohibitions, but in PL 83-280 states (notably Washington, with legal recreational use), some are considering or even embracing the economic development potential of growing and distributing marijuana.
In general, medical marijuana laws have not been recognized on tribal lands, with some tribal members even facing exile for using state-licensed cannabis on their reservations. Many non-tribal members have also been cited for possession on the reservation, and although some legal experts hold that jurisdiction is unclear, the Salt River Maricopa-Pima Indian Community has successfully defended impounding cars of card-holding medical marijuana patients. Other tribes have requested their state’s licensing authority not to permit dispensaries near reservation boundaries.
Tribes in most states—including Colorado, where recreational use is also legal—follow federal law on marijuana use, possession, production and distribution. While some at the Ute Mountain Ute reservation have recommended initiating community discussion on the topic, the Southern Ute have come out very strongly against adhering to Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws.
The fact of the matter is that tribes have experienced more harm than good by illegal growing, cartel activity, and children being endangered by adult use or being recruited into gangs. Other tribal leaders cite problems with allowing marijuana in Indian Country such as losing subsidies for low income housing and BIA funding; IHS and tribal health services capacity strained by already high rates of drug and alcohol abuse; adding a burden to tribal law enforcement departments, courts and other agencies; and loss of employment due to failing drug tests. This last could spell big problems for recruiting and retaining a number of public trust positions, such as firefighters and police officers.