If Arizona legalizes marijuana next year
, Indian tribes in the state won't have to follow the same rules. But the same goes in reverse: if the state says no to green, tribes can decide to jump on the weed train any time.
In December, the Department of Justice issued a memorandum
that clarified tribes' role in the marijuana world. It said they are treated the same as states, meaning they make and follow their own prohibitions.
How likely is it that Arizona tribes will legalize mota before the state does, though? Not very, according to UA Indian law professor Rob Williams, whose expertise since 1987 is economic development in Indian Country. A big part of it is they don't want to worry about another substance coming in that could lead to more problems than what they currently face with alcohol abuse, Williams says.
Still, he's been working with tribe representatives to keep them up-to-date with the rapidly-emerging (and very lucrative) weed business.
The economic options for tribes aren't solely based on growing and selling marijuana for locals, but maybe legalizing to attract outside investors—such as dispensary owners looking for growing facilities that don't come with the tax baggage.
Tribes that possibly choose to grow marijuana on their land wouldn't be subject to taxation, Williams says. "Arizona has a rather complex regulatory regime, which with marijuana, would not apply in reservations, places where you could leverage your investment dollars."
"In California, we have had two very small tribes near Palm Springs announce multi-million partnerships for commercial medical marijuana," he says.
But, the only way this would be a good idea is if it happens in a state that has already legalized weed, such as Washington. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense—buying pot in tribal land, then once you exit, you're now in possession of a controlled substance. You'd be in deep shit and many tribes fear they'd be in deep shit, too
(Remember, even though medical ganja is legal in the state, it is not allowed on any of the more than 20 reservations in Arizona. Your card doesn't mean a thing there.)
He recommends tribes in Arizona that, if the state legalizes weed next year, it's best to work cooperatively to create similar regulation. He points to Washington as a success story. The DOJ memorandum from a few months ago stemmed from tribes in Washington wondering what their role regarding weed was, since the state legalized it in 2012.
"Tribes are not on the sidelines, they are watching this very closely," he says.