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Pot Turnaround on Tribal Lands 

Following a trend of relaxing marijuana policy, the Department of Justice announced recently that it will no longer prosecute people who grow marijuana on tribal lands.

Though the Obama administration recently said something similar regarding states where marijuana has been legalized, the move was unanticipated and, in places, unwelcome, according to reports. Many tribes prohibit marijuana cultivation in their own bylaws. But the announcement has already spurred a movement in the Hoopa Tribe to relax a ban on growing on the Hoopa Reservation.

Former Tribal Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall Sr. penned an op-ed in the Dec. 16 issue of the Two Rivers Tribune calling for tribal members to support legalization of marijuana cultivation on tribal lands. "We live in a poor community with a very weak economy," Marshall wrote, adding that the tribe's ban is now the only thing standing in the way of "true economic independence and the opportunity for tribal citizens to earn a very good middle-class income from the sweat of their brow by farming the legal crop of cannabis."

Marshall wrote that the environmental degradations of pot grows have been overstated, and suggested that legalizing cultivation could help the tribe secure agricultural water rights as well as bring grows out of the hills where they surreptitiously flourish.

Marshall submitted a petition overturning the tribe's pot ban to the elections office, which will look over the language for legal problems and suggest changes or approve it, at which point Marshall has 30 days to gather enough signatures to get it on the June ballot.

Leilani Pole, a Hoopa tribal member who advocates for lifting the ban, said the tribal government originally prohibited marijuana because it feared that saying anything otherwise would jeopardize federal funding.

With the U.S. now "saying that natives can in fact have the freedom that their tribal councils allow them," Pole said, tribal members may choose to overturn the ban. She was uncertain how successful the petition will be, citing anti-marijuana propaganda from the "Reefer Madness" era that still shapes public opinion, but said that the tribe's voters are skewing younger.

While Marshall was happy to use the DOJ's memo as a launching point for legalization, other tribes around the U.S. were reticent about the announcement.

A Colorado attorney and chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission, which advises the federal government on tribal criminal justice issues, told Bloomberg Politics that "We actually have no idea what's going on here," adding that the administration had not sought his group's input.

And the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians told the same reporter she had no idea which tribes the DOJ claimed had requested clarity on marijuana issues.

Others have expressed concern about relaxing penalties on drug use in communities that have historically been prone to addiction.

"Indian tribes have been decimated by drug use," Seattle attorney Anthony Broadman told the Guardian. "Tribal regulations of pot are going to have to dovetail with tribal values, making sure marijuana isn't a scourge like alcohol or tobacco."

Others expressed concerns about adding complexity to already garbled marijuana law — especially in California, where a jumbled network of local, state and federal rules make a foggy situation for growers, medical marijuana patients and residents.

It will come down to individual tribes — the Yurok Tribe conducted, with the help of federal and local law enforcement, a series of raids of marijuana grows on tribal lands last year, and reiterated its strong opposition to cultivation in a message to the Lost Coast Outpost last week.

Others could, as Marshall contends, use marijuana to bolster typically impoverished communities with a new economic footing.

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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth was an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal from 2013 to 2017.

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