Session at RES DC meeting explores marijuana in Indian Country

Former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, at podium, discusses marijuana in Indian Country at the RES DC Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2015. Robert Shepherd, former Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate chairman, is seated on left. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Caution urged as tribes enter new industry
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The Reservation Economic Summit DC was in full swing in the nation's capital on Tuesday with a breakout session on the burgeoning marijuana industry in Indian Country.

Interest in marijuana grew following the release of the Wilkinson memo late last year. In it, the Department of Justice confirmed that the shift away from strict enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws would also apply to tribal governments.

Tim Purdon, a former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota and an advocate for the Wilkinson memo, spoke at the breakout session. He said DOJ will not prosecute a tribe that has legalized marijuana as long as a strong regulatory system is in place.

“As long as a sovereign state has a strong regulatory scheme," Purdon said, "it appears the DOJ will stand down."

Purdon represents Alex White Plume, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe whose industrial hemp crops were destroyed by federal agents even though the plant does not contain the same drug-inducing characteristics as marijuana, a close relative. Tribal law recognizes the distinction but federal law does not.

Alex White Plume. Photo from The Flying Cloud Eco-DiscoveryTour

Purdon is trying to help his client restart the hemp operation but is seeing opposition from government attorneys. He said tribes need to be able to justify their decision to pursue marijuana cultivation in order to avoid similar types of litigation.

“You need to make the argument that your regulation is strong, robust and protects public safety and that [growing marijuana] is a positive for your tribe,” Purdon added.

Robert Shepherd, a former chairman of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in North Dakota and South Dakota, serves as the tribal relations officer for Monarch America, a cannabis development firm. He urged tribal leaders to consult their entire community before deciding whether to legalize marijuana.

“As a tribe you have the moral ethical decision as a people to start that conversation with your community,” Shepherd said. “You want to let your community make that decision for you.”

Shepherd also implored tribes to proceed with caution to avoid potential litigation that could harm tribal sovereignty.

Robert Shepherd with President Barack Obama in December 2014. Photo from Facebook

“We don’t want to pierce our sovereignty veil any sooner then we have to,” he said.

Polly Fairchild is the president of Native Bloom, a business that consults with tribes interested in legalizing marijuana. She said tribal governments need a specific plan before pursuing any operations.

“Your market is specific to you, your land and your local legal considerations,” Fairchild said. “Proceeding without a well thought out business plan is dangerous.”

Purdon echoed that statement in his closing remarks. He warned that federal policies could change quickly and present further challenges for tribes that legalize marijuana.

“The question is how the federal government will react to tribes getting into marijuana,” he said. “Be careful because we don’t want the first case to be a failure.

RES DC is in its second year in Washington, D.C., The event, hosted by National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, continues today and tomorrow.

Relevant Documents:
Department of Justice Policy Statement Regarding Marijuana Issues in Indian Country (October 2014)

Related Stories
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe moves forward with legal marijuana (6/16)
Tribal leaders return to nation's capitol for big economic summit (6/15)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee takes up economic development (6/15)
NCAIED set to return to DC with Reservation Economic Summit (5/20)

Join the Conversation