OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite getting the federal government's go-ahead to grow and sell marijuana, local tribes are showing little interest in expanding into the trade.
If they did, says one expert in Native American affairs, it would raise a tangle of questions involving tribal and state law that are unique to Oklahoma.
State leaders have outlawed marijuana — its growth, possession or use — and violators face prison. But the 39 federally recognized tribes here have a way around that. A Justice Department memo published last week cites tribal sovereignty as grounds to allow the cultivation of marijuana on their land.
No tribes in Oklahoma have publicly expressed an interest in doing so. That's likely because many wrestle with drug and substance abuse, without adding legalized marijuana to the mix, said Taiawagi Helton, a University of Oklahoma law professor who specializes in federal Indian law.
“I know of no Oklahoma tribes that have even remotely found this to be an attractive idea,” Helton said.
Unlike tribes elsewhere, those in Oklahoma often “share the political ideals of their neighbors and aren’t tempted by this," he added.
Oklahomans by and large oppose legalized marijuana — despite recent decisions in a handful of other states to do so. Voter-led petitions for two legalization referendums failed to garner enough support to even put the questions on the November ballot.
Helton said some tribes may have an interest in producing industrial hemp which, like marijuana, is classified as cannabis. Industrial hemp isn’t consumed but rather used in the production of textiles, paper and plastics.
Should a tribe decide to go into the business of buying and selling consumer-grade marijuana, he said, the broad federal ruling could cause issues for Oklahoma, which has a complex checkerboard of tribal land as well as strict state laws outlawing all marijuana.
The federal decision would apply to all lands set aside for tribes — regardless of whether that land is classified as a reservation, he said.
Helton said enforcement of state marijuana laws would be complicated, and it would take considerable effort, and possibly litigation, to sort out jurisdictional issues. Tucked within existing tribal boundaries, he noted, are patches of land not owned by those tribes or its members.
Practically that would mean marijuana customers could inadvertently walk across a street, crossing from an area where marijuana possession is legal into state jurisdiction where it isn't tolerated.
“You can imagine how overwhelmingly complicated those things could be,” he said.
For other purposes, Oklahoma's tribes have neatly managed to sidestep jurisdictional issues through compacts and tax agreements.
Many across the state were shocked by the Justice Department memo, but Helton said it seemed to fall in line with a federal strategy of treating tribes as states.
“It’s consistent with the overall framework, but it surprised me because I didn’t think anybody was talking about the topic,” he said.
As written, the Justice Department opinion is open to some interpretation, he said. Some attorneys read it as applying to every tribe, while others say it narrowly applies to those in states where marijuana is legal.
Also, the memo addresses the cultivation and sale — but not use — of the drug in states where marijuana is illegal, he said.
Helton doesn’t think that marijuana could be consumed or possessed on Indian land in Oklahoma by a non-tribal member because it would be in violation of state marijuana law.
Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, said the ruling raises many questions.
“We’re not naïve enough to think it would stay on tribal land,” he said. “Obviously we would have concerns about how these tribes would enforce it to make sure it doesn’t make it across to state property.”