Congress needs to update national marijuana laws and respect tribal sovereignty

Leonard Forsman is chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

The STATES Act protects tribal sovereignty and respects state marijuana laws

Leonard Forsman

Suquamish Tribe

In 2012, when Washington State voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational marijuana, it signaled the start of a major nationwide shift in perceptions and attitudes towards marijuana, and a boom in the marijuana industry. My community and government, the Suquamish Tribe located in Kitsap County, like all other tribes in the state, was left out of the legalization process, known as Initiative 502 or “I-502,” but we were nonetheless significantly impacted by it. My Tribe is now the fourth largest employer in the county and we provide law enforcement services on our 7,657 acre reservation which is just a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle – and is the final resting place of the city’s namesake, Chief Seattle.

When I-502 passed, marijuana was still illegal on our reservation, which is a checkerboard reservation with both Indian and non-Indian residents. The state’s legalization of marijuana did not legalize it on the reservation for tribal citizens, but it did legalize it for non-Indians living on the reservation. Our government was forced to make a decision on marijuana for the citizens of the tribe.

Other tribes and states across the nation are now wrestling with this same decision about whether to continue the criminalization of marijuana or move towards a regulatory regime. After much deliberation and consultation with our people, the Tribal Council decided it was better for us to regulate the marijuana trade rather than continue to enforce tribal criminal laws against marijuana with no help from the state. We studied the state system to create a robust regulatory and taxation regime. We also passed tribal laws to ensure a safe product and to prevent distribution to minors, drugged driving, diversion to other jurisdictions and to exclude any criminal elements from the industry.

We then convinced the federal government to issue the Policy Statement Regarding Marijuana in Indian Country in 2014, and persuaded Washington State to pass legislation in 2015 authorizing the Governor to enter compacts with tribes for the regulation and taxation on marijuana. Following this intense and exhaustive effort, we were able to open our first retail marijuana store, which will turn three years old in December. The store has yielded significant returns for the tribe, which we have been able to use to provide additional law enforcement services in the community and further provide for the citizens of the tribe.

Despite all of this work and success, we are still operating in a grey area as the current Attorney General has revoked the 2014 Indian Country Marijuana Policy Statement. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is still prohibited as a Schedule I drug, the same level as heroin, LSD and ecstasy, despite ample evidence it should be rescheduled.

Accordingly, a change is needed to bring federal law in line with numerous states and the overwhelming changes in scientific understanding of marijuana. The recently introduced bipartisan bill, Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act), by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senator Corey Gardner (R-CO), does just that. The STATES Act protects state-level decision-making authority while ensuring the federal government retains its law enforcement role where needed. For tribes, the STATES Act respects tribal sovereignty by providing tribes with a voice in how a state’s decision to move toward a marijuana regulatory regime will affect our communities. It would allow tribes, in states that have decriminalized marijuana, to continue utilizing federal law criminalizing marijuana or to implement their own tribal regulatory regime.

This approach recognizes current realities while respecting tribal sovereignty and further respecting our expertise in running highly regulated businesses. For decades, tribes have operated highly successful casinos and tobacco businesses in a functional, safe, and profitable manner; but challenges still exist for the marijuana business. The biggest obstacle is the legal uncertainty that has caused banks to cancel relationships and refuse to bank marijuana proceeds. We have also faced situations where vendors, unrelated to the marijuana business, express concerns that the Tribe’s marijuana revenue may somehow leave them legally vulnerable. The STATES Act would cure this uncertainty.

This bill would empower the safe regulation of marijuana while respecting tribal sovereignty and establishing the legal certainty businesses need to plan and operate successfully. This delicate balance should be applauded and supported. The Suquamish Tribe asks Congress to move quickly and enact the STATES Act to provide the certainty that is needed across the nation.

Leonard Forsman is the chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

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