Just last week — on the heels of the Cromnibus defunding enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states with medical marijuana programs — the federal government announced that Native American Tribes are free to legalize, cultivate, manufacture, and distribute cannabis on tribal lands without federal intervention. Though many tribes have no interest in getting into the cannabis business, the MoheganSuquamish, and Seneca Nation tribes, among others, have already expressed interest.

According to the Department of Justice, it will no longer prosecute federal laws regulating the growing or selling of marijuana on reservations, even when state law bans the drug. But it will enforce those federal laws if so requested by a given tribe. The memo (actually dated in late October 2014), authored by Monty Wilkinson, Director for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, reflecting this new policy can be found here. According to Director A/G Wilkinson’s memo, the eight enforcement priorities outlined in the August 2013 Cole memo, in addition to consultation with tribal leaders, will guide U.S. Attorneys’ enforcement of federal marijuana laws on tribal lands. It is important to note that, just like the 2013 Cole memo, the Wilkinson memo does not represent a change in federal law or stymie in any way the federal government’s ability to fully enforce federal drug laws. What this means is that any tribe considering legalizing marijuana should be sure to enact and enforce robust regulations so as to stay in line with the Cole and Wilkinson memos and in order to avoid unwanted federal scrutiny.

The Department of Justice explains its new memo as follows:

… the memo was done in the interest of Native America community’s safety. This policy statement recognizes that Indian country is incredibly diverse, and different tribes will have different perspectives on enforcement priorities that are in the best interest of their community’s public safety … Some tribes are very concerned with public safety implications, such as the impact on youth, and the use of tribal lands for the cultivation or transport of marijuana, while others have explored decriminalization and other approaches.

The federal government’s more liberal policies regarding cannabis on tribal lands will likely be a financial boon for a number of tribes, especially those in states where cannabis is not yet legal. In those states, the tribes will be it for legal marijuana. We also see the tribes doing just fine in those states where marijuana has already been legalized. In those states, the tribes will be able to enact robust marijuana regulations without having to impose high taxes on marijuana, making their cannabis considerably cheaper than that of their non-tribal competitors.

The possibilities for Native American Tribes in the cannabis industry are vast and just as many tribes have done immensely well with gaming, fireworks, and cigarettes. So much so that we also expect many do to well in the cannabis industry.

  • Tami Tipton Halphen

    Does this mean that all the casinos run by Native American tribes will now be free to sell marijuana? Alabama-Coushata Casino may have just become a lot more attractive! Kinder, Louisiana is a lot closer to Houston than Colorado!