The Department of Justice released a memo Thursday directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute Native American tribes for growing and selling marijuana on their sovereign lands.
The guidance, authored by Monty Wilkinson, the executive director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, extends even to reservations in states where marijuana has not yet been legalized.
The new policy, which is dated October 28 but was released publicly only today, is very similar to a 2013 memo the Justice Department issued outlining eight guidelines that states with legal marijuana would have to follow to avoid federal interference, such as not allowing sales to minors and preventing diversion of the drug to jurisdictions where it is prohibited.
“The eight priorities in the [earlier federal memo] will guide United States Attorneys’ marijuana enforcement efforts in Indian Country, including in the event that sovereign Indian Nations seek to legalize the cultivation or use of marijuana in Indian Country,” the new guidance says.
“Having the Department of Justice take a stance honoring the sovereignty of Native American tribes when it comes to how they set their own marijuana policy is refreshing,” NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana.com in an email. “The individuals living on these reservations deserve the same freedom to decide how they chose to handle marijuana on their own lands as we are currently providing the fifty states under current Justice Department memos.”
The new memo says that U.S. attorneys will still get involved in marijuana prosecutions when requested by tribal leaders, and it remains to be seen how many and which Indian tribes will be interested in taking advantage of the new clearance to grow and selling marijuana without federal interference.
Altieri predicted that some tribes would do so. “Like most others in this country, many in these regions see the failures of our current prohibitionist policies and will likely take this opportunity to pursue a new approach,” he said.
Such a move could have big financial benefits for tribes, many of which operate casinos and sell untaxed tobacco products on their sovereign lands, which attracts interest and revenue from non-Indians.
Kevin Sabet, of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told U.S. News & World Report that the new memo means, “A situation is quickly forming where people living in states who do not want legalization will in fact be living 10 minutes away from a marijuana store.”
Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access welcomed the new guidance but said, “as sovereign nations, these lands should already have this ability as a right.”
Liszewski also focused on the potential medical benefits of unimpeded cannabis cultivation and sales. “Medical access to cannabis grown on reservations could prove to be a cost-effective way for tribal nations to improve the wellness of tribal members,” he said in an email to Marijuana.com.