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Why a Native American tribe can open a marijuana resort in a state where pot is illegal

A Native American tribe plans to do something that's technically illegal in South Dakota, the state where the tribe resides: It will grow and sell marijuana.

The Santee Sioux tribe's move is possible as a result of a 2014 Justice Department decision that stopped US attorneys from prosecuting Native American tribes that grow and sell pot on reservations.

The Santee Sioux tribe seems to be, according to the Associated Press, the first tribe to take really big advantage of the opportunity. As the AP's Regina Garcia Cano reported, leaders plan to grow their own pot and sell it in a smoking lounge that will include a nightclub, arcade games, bar and food service, slot machines, and an outdoor music venue. Tribal President Anthony Reider called it "an adult playground." The small tribe of 400 hopes to use the profits for housing, a clinic, and addiction treatment.

But there's a big uncertainty: Only the current administration's guidance is allowing the tribe's new venture without federal interference. What if the next administration isn't so tolerant?

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It is the Obama administration — specifically, President Barack Obama's Department of Justice — that enabled the Santee Sioux tribe's move. So the tribe's new business model will likely be fine until January 2017. But the big question is what happens after, when a new president takes over and could, potentially, overturn the guidance.

Even though pot is now legal in four states and Washington, DC, Republican candidates in particular seem more hostile to relaxed marijuana laws. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who's running for president, has said that people in states where marijuana is legal should "enjoy it until January of 2017, because I will enforce the federal laws against marijuana as president of the United States." Other candidates haven't been as blunt, but they have indicated they oppose legalization.

Marijuana is, after all, still illegal at the federal level. The Obama administration hasn't changed that (Obama still opposes legalization), but it has agreed to let states and Native American tribes legalize the drug without much federal interference.

The Democratic candidates haven't said they support legalization. But Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have suggested states should be able to change their marijuana laws without federal interference. Presumably, the same applies to Native American tribes.

So whether the legalization efforts of the Santee Sioux tribe — and other states, and perhaps other tribes — remain unscathed after 2017 could depend on who the next president is.

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