By GENE JOHNSON
TULALIP, Wash. (AP) — The Justice Department’s December announcement that it would allow the nation’s Indian tribes to legalize and regulate marijuana on their reservations brought notes of caution — if not silence or opposition- – from many tribes.
They were reluctant to consider it given the substance abuse problems that already plague many reservations.
But the attendance at a conference on the topic Friday gave an early indication of just how many might be weighing it.
Representatives of about 75 tribes from around the country converged on the Tulalip Indian Tribe’s resort and casino for a $605-a-head seminar on the regulatory, legal and social issues related to pot legalization. That’s a small fraction of the nation’s 566 recognized tribes, and many of the attendees were from smaller tribes looking for a potential economic edge.
“I’m pleasantly surprised _ a great deal more are considering this than I thought would be considering it,” said Ken Meshigaud, chairman of the Hannahville Indian Community, a band of the Potawatomi Tribe on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “From an economic standpoint, it may be a good venture the tribes can get into.”
Tribes have been wrestling with the idea since the U.S. Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t stand in their way if they want to approve pot for medical or recreational use.
The agency said tribes must follow the same law enforcement priorities laid out for states that legalize the drug, including keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and criminal elements.
The discussions are heating up: On Monday, about 200 tribal leaders attended a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, which included a closed-to-the-press panel discussion with Justice Department officials on marijuana legalization in Indian country, said Demetri Downing, a former prosecutor for the Tohono O’odham tribe in southern Arizona who now advises tribes on regulatory issues related to pot.
The topic also is on the agenda of a major tribal economic summit in Las Vegas next month, he said.
“We have to take a look at it,” said Seth Pearman, a tribal attorney for the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. “The economic opportunity is just astronomical _ it would be almost negligent to miss out on this.”