It is now legal to legalize marijuana, so to speak, on each of America’s 310 Indian reservations. That doesn’t mean weed is legal in any of these places – it isn’t – but it does mean tribes can now choose to legalize if they want to.
The federal government promised in December that it would no longer interfere in attempts to reform cannabis laws on reservations. Federal law has long barred the cultivation, possession, or sale of marijuana on reservation land.
Gambling is already legal on many Indian reservations, despite state and federal laws that prohibit it. Could weed be the next big thing? Could it supplant gambling as a source of reliable income for Indian nations?
First, it’s important to note that casinos and weed are two very different things when it comes to reservation law and culture. Native American tribes have long battled unusually high rates of alcoholism and addiction on their reservations, and that alone could make it difficult to push legalization.
Still, it’s not improbable to imagine at least a few reservations taking advantage of the new federal leniency. If a Native American tribe could conceivably grow and sell the drug without endorsing its use on the reservation, this would most likely happen.
It’s a complicated subject, though, and easy answers are elusive. What works well within the culture of one tribe might backfire and cause problems within the culture of another.
Indian tribes could benefit from legal marijuana
But Indian tribes are in a unique position to benefit from federal marijuana policy. Though the feds have a fair amount of authority over reservations, they tend to apply a hands-off approach.
Once these rights are granted, it would be difficult for the government to revoke them. Even a more conservative administration would run into the fact that Indian reservations operate mostly under their own laws.
Federal intervention has never gone over well with Native Americans, and at times it’s led to bloodshed and even massacre. Even Congress is unlikely to revoke a right once it’s been granted to a tribe.
Indian tribes in the United States operate under a confusing combination of reservation, state, and federal law. Most policies are local, but state or federal law govern certain subjects, including anti-drug policies.
At the same time, tribes are connected to the federal government by official treaties that treat the reservations as semi-sovereign nations. The FBI enforces drug laws, homicide, and some other serious crimes, but lesser offenses are left to reservation police.
The new marijuana policy will allow tribes to make their own decisions about cannabis. Whichever path they choose, the fact that legalization is now open to them suggests it will soon spread to even more places across the country.