Four western U.S. states have decided to allow recreational marijuana sales, but legal pot may soon be within driving distance of many more Americans following a new Department of Justice decision.
In a memo released Thursday, the department outlined new policies allowing American Indian tribes to grow and sell marijuana on reservation lands.
Possession of marijuana is a federal crime, but the department announced in August 2013 it would allow states to regulate recreational marijuana sales. The nation’s first recreational pot stores opened in Colorado and Washington this year.
Residents of Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted in November to also legalize marijuana, though Congress appears likely to block sales in the nation’s capital.
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The new federal policy will allow tribes interested in growing and selling marijuana to do so, if they maintain “robust and effective regulatory systems,” John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, told the Los Angeles Times.
Tribes will need to avoid eight enforcement triggers that currently apply to state marijuana sales, including a prohibition on sales to minors and the diversion of marijuana to states where it remains illegal under local law.
It’s unclear how many tribes will take advantage of the policy directive. Some tribes are well-known for using their special legal status to host casinos or sell untaxed cigarettes, but addiction and substance abuse are major concerns for some communities.
There are 326 federally recognized American Indian reservations, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many reservations are in states that don’t allow marijuana for medical or recreational use, such as Oklahoma, Utah and the Dakotas. Others are located near major East Coast cities and far from legal pot stores in the West.
“The tribes have the sovereign right to set the code on their reservations,” U.S. attorney for North Dakota Timothy Purdon, chairman of the Attorney General’s Subcommittee on Native American Issues, told the Times.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said U.S. attorneys will review tribal marijuana policies on a case-by-case basis and that prosecutors retain the right to enforce federal law.
“Each U.S. attorney will assess the threats and circumstances in his or her district, and consult closely with tribal partners and the Justice Department when significant issues or enforcement decisions arise in this area,” the statement says.
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Kevin Sabet, a former presidential drug adviser and co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says he’s concerned the new policy opens the door to pockets of legalization across the country.
“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,” Sabet says.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, says tribal leaders “will have a tremendous opportunity to improve public health and safety, as well as benefit economically” by legalizing marijuana.
“Regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol would ensure the product is controlled, and it would bring significant revenue and new jobs to these communities,” Tvert says. “Studies have consistently found above-average rates of alcohol abuse and related problems among Native American communities, so it would be incredibly beneficial to provide adults with a safer recreational alternative.”
Read the memo:
Updated on Dec. 11, 2014: Reaction from Mason Tvert was added to this article.
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