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Northwest Tribes Can Legalize Marijuana, But Do They Want To?

In Les Parks’ perfect world, the Tulalip Tribes would not only legalize marijuana but fund research into its medical benefits.

“I see Tulalip leading the country and being on this frontier for what this plant can do for mankind, basically,” said Parks, the Tulalips’ vice chairman and a longtime supporter of legalization, speaking from the tribe’s gleaming new government building, with sweeping views over Puget Sound.

Washington tribes are already diverging in how they may want to approach legal marijuana. Parks said his fellow tribal board members are all over the map on this issue.

Personally, he has no interest in opening the reservation to recreational pot businesses, he said. And he doesn't support a bill before the state Legislature, HB 2000, that would allow tribal compacts with the state of Washington.

“I don’t want to see any tribes acquiesce and fall into the ‘mother-may-I’s’ from the state of Washington. It’s just not appropriate for sovereign nations to do that,” he said.

In his view, the only government officials tribes need to consult are at the federal level. And he’d like the tribes to approach the Justice Department together so approaches don’t vary region by region.

While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, a memo from the Department of Justice last fall made clear that federal enforcement in Indian Country will follow the pattern of states where marijuana is now legal. It will center on key priorities like diversion of marijuana to criminal enterprises and access by minors.

“As long as you comply with the eight bullet points in this memo and you negotiate a deal with your local U.S. attorney, you’re going to be good to go,” Parks said.

An accompanying DOJ document explains that tribal governments and U.S. attorneys “will consult on a government-to-government basis” as issues arise, but that the federal government cannot facilitate these regulatory efforts or assist tribes in creating regulations.

But some tribes see benefits in negotiating with the state of Washington as well as federal authorities.

The bill at the Legislature is being supported by the Suquamish tribe, which first approached state regulators about entering the recreational marijuana business about a year ago. A letter from the tribal chairman explained that the tribe could legalize marijuana on its own but would be best served by striking an agreement with the state.

Seattle attorney Chris Masse works both with tribes and with state-licensed marijuana businesses. She said if tribes go it alone, it could be expensive and time-consuming to create their own regulatory systems.

“Not every tribe is going to want to do that,” she said, “and not every tribe is going to want to exclusively sell its own product. So at some point for tribes that are really in this space, they may want to connect with the rest of that 502 marketplace.”

Through state agreements, Masse said tribes could sell marijuana they grow to state-licensed processors or buy up the existing glut of legal marijuana to sell in their own retail stores. And while tribes would not be subject to the taxes approved by voters in Initiative 502, Massey said it’s not a given that they would charge less than state-licensed operators.

She said, “There’s really not a good reason to undercut the market. That just leaves money on the table. I think what you would see instead was a lot of tribes implementing their own tax,” so the end consumer would not see a price difference.

Josh Etzler of Lake Stevens is a contractor who has done building projects on the reservation. He said his main question if tribes legalize marijuana is how that would affect the existing marijuana retail stores, which already have a tough time competing with medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I know a lot of people that don’t buy cigarettes at local gas stations because they’ll buy them at the Tulalip smoke shop because it’s cheaper,” he said. “And right now with the state-run stores, their taxes are so high that they’re not getting much business as it is.”

Etzler said if the price and regulations of marijuana on reservations are similar to the state’s, then the impact would be minimal.

Other locals said they believe I-502 has been harmful to the state and they don’t want tribes following suit.

Retired school bus driver Barb Sherwood is not eager to see marijuana legalization extended any farther in her community.

“There’s so many people that are getting pulled over because of marijuana, you know, DUI. I’ve always thought it’s not a good thing to have it in our state,” she said, adding, “The state’s making money and I think that’s what they were looking for.”

The current interest in legalization by some tribes is a marked contrast to the Yakama Nation, which reiterated its ban on marijuana as soon as I-502 passed in Washington. In a 2013 op-ed in the Seattle P-I, then-tribal chairman Harry Smiskin wrote, “We have had a long and unpleasant history with marijuana — just as we have had with alcohol. We fight them both on our lands.”

Tulalip vice chair Parks said he’ll meet with other tribal officials in Las Vegas this week to discuss next steps. But ultimately he said he’ll be guided by his membership – the tribe plans to convene a series of meetings later this spring to gauge members’ attitudes.

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