Why Tribes Don’t Need Your Permission

Late last year the U.S. Department of Justice made an announcement that American Indian tribes may grow and sell marijuana on tribal land so long as they adhere to the federal conditions required of states that have legalized marijuana, and with the consultation of the local U.S. Attorney’s office. As a result of the announcement many tribes, including the Pomo and the Red Lake Band, are seeking to implement a regulatory framework that would adhere to those federal conditions. Others have voiced concern that the vague wording of the DOJ memo will leave tribes vulnerable to prosecution on the federal, state or county level. But what if California tribes did not need the permission of the federal government to cultivate marijuana without the threat of criminal prosecution?

The United States Supreme Court has recognized an exemption for tribal lands from the application of state law. For example, in Washington v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Indian Reservation the Court held that “tribal sovereignty is dependent on, and subordinate to, only the Federal Government, not the States.” However, where Congress has delegated this power to states, state law would be enforceable on tribal land.

Under Public Law 280, the federal government delegated criminal law enforcement to California and a handful of other states, making the state penal code enforceable on tribal land. This rule is subject to one caveat: if the state generally permits the conduct at issue, subject to regulation, it must be classified as a civil or regulatory charge, rather than criminal, and thus PL-280 would not authorize its enforcement on an Indian reservation. Furthermore, the definition of generally permitted conduct is extensive. The Supreme Court held in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians that “even to the extent that the State and county seek to regulate short of prohibition, the laws are preempted” from application on tribal land. One possible conclusion is that by regulating marijuana, even for medical purposes, California has preempted state or county marijuana laws from applying to tribes.

Tribal law still applies, of course. And some tribes have strict anti-drug policies, which may be enforced by tribal police on those lands. However, those tribes that are within the borders of a state with PL-280 in effect would be able to independently determine how to regulate marijuana without the need to invoke the protection of the recent memo. What this means is that for tribes seeking to benefit from the restrictive nature of the marijuana market the fear of criminal prosecution can be at least somewhat alleviated (however, this blog post does not constitute legal advice; anyone seeking to take action must consult with a licensed attorney).

In my next post I will be considering whether PL-280 would also allow for “casino-style” recreational marijuana use, or the use by non-tribal members while on tribal lands, and if so, whether what the ramifications of such use would be.

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