Indian Country looks to marijuana as new moneymaker

WASHINGTON — After making hundreds of billions of dollars running casinos, American Indian tribes are getting a good whiff of another potential moneymaker: marijuana.

The first Tribal Marijuana Conference is set for Friday on the Tulalip Indian Reservation as Indian Country gets ready to capitalize on the nation’s expanding pot industry.

Organizers said representatives from more than 50 tribes in at least 20 states have registered, with total attendance expected to surpass 300.

The gathering comes after the Obama administration announced late last year that it would not interfere with any federally recognized tribes that want to grow and sell pot on reservation lands— if they do a good job policing themselves.

The tribes would join the District of Columbia and four states — Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska — where voters have approved marijuana for recreational use.

Robert Odawi Porter, one of the conference organizers and the former president of the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, said tribes have “a tremendous economic diversification opportunity to consider” with marijuana commerce. He said the event would bring together “trailblazers” in the industry who will help tribal leaders understand the complex issues involved in the emerging market.

Marijuana is cheap to grow, and the market is competitive, said Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who served as Washington state’s top pot consultant.

Washington’s retail pot stores opened in July. Growers who sold their pot for $21 a gram only a few months ago are now getting $4 a gram.

“The price of marijuana is the price of illegality,” Kleiman said.

Kleiman will be one of two keynote speakers at the conference at the Tulalip Resort Casino, where tribal officials will discuss a wide range of issues, including cultural ramifications, banking and taxes.

Marijuana is a divisive issue among tribes, with many tribal officials worried about high rates of drug addiction among American Indians.

Last year, the Yakama Nation decided to ban marijuana from its reservation in southcentral Washington state. The Tulalip Tribes voted to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Justice to try to legalize medical marijuana.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, another of the planned speakers at Friday’s conference, said allowing tribes to legalize marijuana will move pot sales “into the light of day.” And he predicted there would be little change in the amount of pot sold on reservations.

“Here’s the worst-case scenario: that a tribe just decides they want to be the epicenter of marijuana production, they want to undercut the state system, they want to be a mecca, if you will,” Holmes said. “I’ve heard no tribe say that. … We seem to be able to coexist quite nicely.”

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