PIERRE — American Indians in the Dakotas appeared skeptical Friday of growing and selling marijuana in Indian Country, citing concerns over health and public safety on reservations that outweighed a potential financial windfall for tribes.
The U.S. Justice Department outlined a new policy Thursday allowing American Indian tribes, which are considered sovereign nations, to grow and sell marijuana on tribal lands as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug. Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said he is not aware of any tribes in North Dakota or South Dakota actively considering a marijuana industry. He said the issue is more acute in states such as Washington and Colorado that have legalized the drug.
South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson was unavailable for comment Friday.
Some tribes view marijuana as an economic opportunity, while others fear legalized marijuana could lead to negative public safety and health consequences. Many tribal leaders in the Dakotas were still digesting the news.
“I’m kind of dumbfounded right now,” Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier said, though he believes the South Dakota tribe would oppose allowing marijuana.
Rosebud Sioux President Cyril Scott said he needed more time to review the policy before weighing in on it regarding the Rosebud reservation in southern South Dakota.
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council this year rejected a proposal to allow marijuana on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Law and Order Committee Chairwoman Ellen Fills the Pipe said she opposes legalizing the drug because of her background in law enforcement. Her gut feeling is that the tribe won’t allow its cultivation, she said.
Lower Brule Sioux Chairman Michael Jandreau said he was undecided on the issue and acknowledged the tension between a new method for the central South Dakota tribe to make money and the destructive effects of alcohol and drugs.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said that tribe might consider marijuana’s cousin, hemp, but the federal government would have to allow interstate transport for it to be a profitable venture. Hemp is used to make a variety of products, including ropes, clothing and lotion.
“We’ve always thought we had the sovereign right to grow marijuana,” Archambault said. “But once you try to transport it interstate, federal law discourages it. If it makes sense economically, then it might be something tribes would consider.”
The 3,600-square-mile reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border has few industries outside of a casino. It’s home to about 10,000 people, and the unemployment rate runs as high as 20 percent. But Archambault said the growing and selling of any type of marijuana — recreational, medicinal or industrial — would take a lot of study and discussion.
“It’s not something we’re going to just jump on and do right now,” he said.
Leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Spirit Lake Sioux in North Dakota did not respond to The Associated Press’ requests for comment. In South Dakota, officials in the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe and the Yankton Sioux Tribe were unavailable or didn’t return requests for comment.
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