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Following Alcohol Vote, Pine Ridge Considers Legalized Pot

February 6, 2014, 6:17 PM by Kevin Woster

Following Alcohol Vote, Pine Ridge Considers Legalized Pot

Oglala tribal officials are still months away from implementing alcohol sales on the reservation that were approved in a tribal vote last summer.

But they are also facing another controversial issue: Should marijuana be legal on the reservation as well?

Tribal Councilman Larry Eagle Bull of Pine Ridge offered the resolution to a tribal business development committee, which approved it. That could set up a reservation vote sometime later this spring or summer

The tribal council should follow the will of the people on marijuana legalization, whatever that turns out to be, Eagle Bull said.

"I just brought it up, and it's going to go out as a poll to the people," he said. "And in that poll it'll say, 'Would you want medical marijuana, recreation or both?' And if it passes through the people on that poll, then we're going to run with it."

It's unclear what the federal government will do if tribal voters approve legalization in a vote later this year. Marijuana growing, possession and use are still against federal law.

 "I know if it passes we'll have some jurisdictional, sovereignty issues," Eagle Bull said. "Ad I talked with our attorney and I'm pretty sure we can resolve it."

Other tribal officials aren't so sure. Tribal President Bryan Brewer said last week that he would have to study the resolution and speak to tribal attorneys before commenting in detail.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Thursday that he respected the sovereign authority of tribes to pass laws affecting tribal members within Indian Country. Off the reservation, however, could be a different story.

"It is likewise important to appreciate that South Dakota law prohibits use of marijuana, and that it remains law enforcement’s responsibility to enforce those laws," Jackley wrote in an email to KELOLAND News. "Equally important is to appreciate that current federal law prohibits marijuana, and that US Attorney General Holder is responsible for enforcing federal law.”

In South Dakota, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson is the lead prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice overseen by Holder. Contacted by KELOLAND News Thursday, Johnson declined comment on the possible legalization of marijuana on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

But the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes by a number of states at least technically puts them in conflict with federal law. Washington and Colorado took that a step further by legalizing pot for recreational use.

There also have been a few instances of tribes in other states legalizing marijuana, and some instances of federal agents making arrests on tribal land despite that legalization. Some of it depends on the size of the marijuana operation in question, and it has made some difference depending on how aggressive a given presidential administration wants the DOJ to be in enforcement of drug laws involving marijuana.

Even those on the Pine Ridge who support legalized use of pot and believe in tribal sovereignty wonder if it will stand up against federal agents if there is a decision to make arrests.

"So, if it follows through then we'll see what happens, if the government lets us do it or not," says John Witt, a tribal member from Pine Ridge. It's passed in Washington, passed in Colorado, so I don't see why not we can't do it."

Witt said tribal people should make the decision for their reservations.

"I believe that it's up to the people to choose if they want to smoke marijuana or not. If we can get the right to smoke marijuana and have it not be a federal offense, where the federal government can't come in and arrest people for doing what we as a tribe can do with our own sovereignty," he said. "So I believe that it could pass. And if it does pass I believe that would set precedent to the other tribes."

Eagle Bull says there are problems with abuse of prescription pain killers for people on the reservation, including the elderly, dealing with long-term medical conditions. Marijuana might offer help for those conditions without some of the side effects that prescription pain pills bring, he said.

Eagle Bull said he's promoting medicinal use over recreational use. But he also thinks well-regulated recreational use with proceeds going to the tribe could boost its budget and provide much-needed financing for a variety or programs and projects.

"The recreational use, if you want to look at it in terms of money, just look at Colorado, they can't keep up," he said.

A reservation vote on the issue could come by about June, he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
A misspelling was corrected in this story.

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