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Obama administration to allow Native American tribes to grow and sell marijuana

A Native American patrol officer looks at a fiber left on the end of a plant to see if it's clothing or part of bags often used to transport marijuana.
A Native American patrol officer looks at a fiber left on the end of a plant to see if it's clothing or part of bags often used to transport marijuana.
US Customs / Getty Images
  1. The Obama administration will direct attorneys to not prevent Native American tribes on reservations from growing and selling marijuana even in states where pot is illegal, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday.
  2. Some federal restrictions will still apply. Marijuana can't be sold to minors, grown on public land, fall into the hands of drug cartels, or systemically spread to states where the drug remains illegal.
  3. It's unclear how many tribes will take advantage of the opportunity. Many are opposed to marijuana legalization. The federal government will continue enforcing prohibition for those tribes, at their request, even in states where pot is legal.

State jurisdiction is limited in tribal reservations

Native American casino

A casino on a tribal reservation. (Mario Tama / Getty Images News)

The Justice Department guidance allows Native American tribes to enforce their own marijuana laws, regardless of what state law says. So tribes could set up schemes to grow and sell marijuana in states where it's illegal, or ban marijuana in states, such as Colorado, where it's legal.

The approach continues a longstanding legal tradition in the US, in which the federal government generally maintains more oversight of tribal lands than states — and has the authority to issue these types of regulations.

This falls in line with a long, legal history of tribes receiving more autonomy to set their own regulations on issues like taxes and gambling. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld tribal sovereignty, in cases like Bryan v. Itasca County and California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, to allow tribes to carry out laws that may differ from state statute.

Some tribes are cautious of drug abuse on their lands

Native American house

An old house stands on tribal lands. (David McNew / Getty Images News)

Timothy Purdon, the chairman of the Attorney General's Subcommittee on Native American Issues, told the Los Angeles Times that many tribes, well aware of the history of alcohol abuse in their territories, may be cautious of legalizing another drug.

A 2011 survey found 15 percent of Native American adolescents aged 12 to 17 suffer from a drug abuse disorder, compared to 7.9 percent of the entire adolescent population.

"Native Americans and their families suffer disproportionately from addiction compared to other groups," Kevin Sabet, head of the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told the Los Angeles Times. "The last thing they want is another commercialized industry that targets them for greater use."

Read more: The threat of commercialized marijuana.

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