Bay Mills Indian Community first tribe in Michigan to legalize marijuana

Tribal members can petition tribal courts to remove any previous marijuana-related offenses — while other tribes are expressing interest Bay Mills’ methodologies

In November 2018, Michigan voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state with a 55 percent margin. Wishing to provide the same laws to tribal citizens, the Bay Mills Indian Community legalized the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, becoming the first Native tribal community in the state to legalize marijuana on the reservation.

In January, the General Tribal Council (the tribe’s head of government, which includes all adult members of the tribe) initiated a vote in favor of legalization, cultivation and use of marijuana within the Bay Mills Indian Community. On April 8, the Bay Mills Executive Council (all elected tribal officials) formally adopted an ordinance legalizing marijuana.

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Bay Mills Indian Community Chairman Bryan Newland

Bay Mills Indian Community Chairman Bryan Newland — who says the decision has been met with mostly favorable support — explained the process to Indian Country Today.

“We have a general council form of government and that means our supreme governing body is actually all the adult members in the tribe. The general council meets four times each year and they can supersede decisions of the elected leadership ... in January they directed that we take this step. And so we as elected leaders are bound to follow their direction. This is something that had the official stamp of approval from the tribe before the elected leadership,” said Newland.

Newland said his tribe’s actions are getting noticed by the other tribes in the state.

“Immediately after we took this step and announced it, we had representatives from many other Michigan tribes reach out and ask for copies of our two ordinances and also were asking advice on how we as policymakers answered some of these thorny questions about policy — usually related to employment and housing,” Newland told Indian Country Today.

According to the tribes’ release, though marijuana will be legal for adults over 21, there will not yet be marijuana dispensaries on tribal lands:

Commercial marijuana businesses are not being authorized on the reservation at this time, as marijuana use is not permitted in public. Under the Tribe's new law, only those age 21 and older are permitted to use and possess marijuana. Individuals who have previous convictions in tribal court for marijuana-based offenses can move to have those convictions vacated. BMIC will no longer criminalize marijuana offenses, as long as the guidelines of the ordinance are followed.

According to tribal ordinances, which are aligned with Michigan law, an individual over 21 may possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and up to 15 grams in the form of marijuana concentrate. They can also cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants.

Newland says that though the tribal government does not necessarily promote the use of marijuana, he says he believes criminalizing marijuana is bad policy.

“We’re taking the step to remove the criminal stigma around marijuana. This is a way for us to make sure all of our tribal members — that this isn't going to saddle them for the rest of their lives. We can make sure that they can take care of their families, get a job, and take care of themselves.”

He also said tribal members deserved to have equal footing to other residents in the state. “Non-Indians under Michigan Law were in a position where they could come on the reservation and use marijuana and they would be within the law. If they were to take a hit of marijuana and pass it to a tribal member, one of them would be breaking the law and one of them would not. That was just confusing.”

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