In an historic move to respect Native American sovereignty earlier this month, the US Department of Justice issued a memo instructing US attorneys to not interfere with tribes cultivating or selling cannabis on reservation lands. The caveat is that the tribes have to be in conformity with state law, limiting the new policy to states that have legalized (Colorado, Washington) or have strong medical marijuana programs (California, Montana). Tribes must also maintain “robust and effective regulatory systems,” as John Walsh, US attorney for Colorado, told the Los Angeles Times. But US attorney for North Dakota Timothy Purdon, the Attorney General’s point-man on Native American Issues, added: “The tribes have the sovereign right to set the code on their reservations.” US News & World Report even speculated: “Marijuana may displace casinos as reservation cash cows.”
A look at the realities on the ground in the USA’s cannabis heartland, however, may curb such enthusiasm. In Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, tribes have mostly been expressing outrage that guerilla growers are using their lands without permission, contributing to environmental degradation by punching roads through forests and spraying pesticides. The Yurok and Hoopa tribes have in recent years cooperated with the Humbioldt County sheriff, California National Guard and federal authorities in eradication campaigns.
In response to the new DoJ policy, the Yurok tribe told Humboldt’s Lost Coast Outpost: “Marijuana cultivation within the Yurok Reservation is prohibited. The Yurok Tribe strongly opposes marijuana cultivation on and close to the Reservation, because of the horrific environmental abuses and water thefts that are associated with the illicit industry. ” It boasted of eradicating dozens of grons in last summer’s “Operation Yurok,” and asserted: “The green rush will not become another Gold Rush on the Yurok Reservation.”
In October, Yurok Tribe Executive Director Troy Fletcher appeared before the Humboldt Board of Supervisors asking for a unified front in support of the tribe’s a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis grows impacting tribal lands.
It should also be noted that the DoJ memo is technically a non-binding “guidance,” and also imposes such inevitable conditions as prohibiting cannabis sales to minors.
California’s Emerald Growers Association is trying to establish environmental standards for the cannabis industry, which can hopefully heal the rift between growers and tribal authorities. In contrast, the growers who invade tribal lands are presumably mere capitalists with little ecological consciousness, or may even be linked to the international criminal cartels now said to be getting in on the Emerald Triangle action. Hopefully the old-school hippie growers can take some leadership on this issue. It would be a sad irony if the federal Justice Department proved more respectful of Native American sovereignty than the cannabis growers.