Tribal CannabisOver the past couple of years, we have written about tribal cannabis and the efforts by various tribes in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere to roll out marijuana programs. Last week, at the Cannabis Law & Policy course I teach, we had the great pleasure of hosting Pi-Ta Pitt from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs here in Oregon. Mr. Pitt is the tribe’s Cannabis Program Coordinator, and he offered some valuable insights for tribes rolling out cannabis programs. Based on that discussion, here are some key takeaways for tribes.

  1. The Wilkinson Memo is still in effect, and confusing as ever.

Way back in October of 2014, the federal Department of Justice issued its “Policy Statement Regarding Marijuana Issues in Indian Policy.” Like the Cole Memo before it, the Wilkinson memo provides that eight enumerated federal priorities “will guide United States Attorneys’ marijuana enforcement efforts in Indian County,” including where “sovereign Indian Nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country.” It all comes back to prosecutorial discretion, and the current administration has yet to comment on the Wilkinson Memo specifically.

In the past few years, federal attorneys have watched warily as Warm Springs and other tribes have explored the cannabis space. While these attorneys have seemed tolerant, to an extent, of the tribal initiatives, the take on cannabis events on tribal lands seems to have touched a federal nerve. Because events are disfavored, tribes looking to legalize cannabis production and sale may wish to steer the focus away from festivities.

  1. Tribes subject to Public Law 280 have a tougher go.

Public Law 280 is a federal statute allowing states to “assume jurisdiction over reservation Indians.” The Act mandated a transfer of federal law enforcement authority within tribal nations to state governments in six states: California, Minnesota (except the Red Lake Nation), Nebraska, Oregon, except the Warm Springs Reservation), Wisconsin (except the Menominee Indian Reservation), and, upon its statehood, Alaska. Other states were allowed to elect similar transfers of power if the affected Indian tribes consented. Since 1953, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington, Florida, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Arizona, Iowa and Utah all have assumed some jurisdiction over crimes committed by tribal members on tribal lands.

Tribes not subject to Public Law 280 don’t have to worry about states attempting to shutter their cannabis programs. Although it may behoove those tribes to have good relationships with their neighboring states, local enforcement is not a possibility – even if the adjacent states are anti-cannabis. Tribes subject to Public Law 280, however, may face immediate local barriers, in the form of law enforcement.

  1. Conversations are key.

Even where Public Law 280 is not at play, it is critical for tribes to dialogue with the states, along with federal officials. The Warm Springs Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe, for example, each have entered into an inter-governmental compact with Washington and Oregon, respectively, regarding their cannabis efforts. This is critical for any distribution of pot off of the reservation, which is where the tribes stand to reap significant economic benefit, but also where states regulate cannabis commerce extensively.

Federal conversations may be even more important. Most tribes already are very familiar with local U.S. attorneys, but conversations around the topic of legalizing cannabis are unique. Any tribe considering a cannabis program would be wise to dialogue with the relevant U.S. attorneys, and to get a read on how that office may respond. To this point, U.S. attorneys may view a tribal program as more “legitimate” if the program is borne of a referendum taken within the tribe itself. And that’s yet another, local conversation.

  1. This could go any number of ways.

Twists and turns are inevitable during the design and implementation of a sovereign’s cannabis program. It happens with states; it happens with tribes. Like states, tribes need to maintain flexibility and build coalitions as they attempt to launch a pot venture. Tribes also need to be realistic about timelines and the roles of current collaborators. For example, what will the tribe’s current bank or credit union think of the effort? What about its other stakeholders?

In all, cannabis can be incredibly attractive to tribes as a revenue source and job creator – especially to those tribes on resource-poor land, and to tribes far from interstate highway corridors, which are unable to contemplate casinos or tourism. In all, cannabis may present a unique opportunity for certain tribes, given the right approach.