Politics & Government

Marijuana raises issue of tribal authority

A Washington Indian tribe is considering a foray into the marijuana business, but federal policy might stand in the way.

The Suquamish Tribe has broached the subject with state officials and submitted a proposal detailing how marijuana sales by the tribe could work. The News Tribune obtained the proposed memorandum of agreement through a public-records request.

Customers on the tribe’s north Kitsap County reservation wouldn’t pay the highest tax the state imposes, according to the proposal — raising the possibility that comparatively low prices for weed would draw customers to Indian Country.

“The production and sale of marijuana on our tribal lands is simply something we are exploring and thought it vital to approach the Liquor Control Board as part of that process,” Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said in a written statement from the tribe that also says it “has a responsibility to explore business opportunities that may help raise funds for its people and government.”

The Liquor Board is operating under the assumption that the federal government doesn’t want pot sold on Indian lands. The agency won’t make any agreement until federal officials say otherwise, board chairwoman Sharon Foster said.


The U.S. Department of Justice is taking a hands-off approach to Washington and Colorado’s voter-approved legalization, as long as the states tightly regulate the drug, including keeping it away from federal land. That could include tribal land.

“They are a sovereign nation, and whether that is federal land or not and how the feds see that is up to the feds and not up to us,” Foster said.

Said Chris Marr, another board member: “We can’t put this system or our licensees at risk.”

The agency has started issuing licenses to marijuana growers and expects to license stores by July.

Marr said the Suquamish Tribe indicated it has been in touch with the federal government. The tribe declined to comment beyond its statement, and comment was not immediately available from the Department of Justice or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Suquamish Tribe controls the Port Madison Indian Reservation on 7,618 acres of land and operates the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort. The highway to the Bainbridge Island-Seattle ferry runs through the reservation.

For now, marijuana possession and sale are illegal under tribal law, according to the statement.


Forsman said the tribe doesn’t take lightly “the devastation drug use and addiction can bring to a community” and is committed to effectively regulating marijuana just as it regulates fuel and tobacco — two goods that often require taxation agreements between tribes and states.

Under the memorandum of agreement drafted by the tribe, it would be authorized to sell marijuana out of retail stores on the tribe’s reservation and trust lands.

The Suquamish did not apply for a license from the Liquor Board to sell marijuana during the now-closed application window. According to the tribe’s memorandum, the state licensing process doesn’t apply to the tribe.

The memorandum calls for the tribe to be allowed to produce, process and sell marijuana, but says it doesn’t yet intend to produce or process the drug.

It also calls for tribal veto power over any state licenses that might someday be granted on tribal lands to private people or businesses. That would allow the tribe to decide who, if anyone, might be able to peddle pot on its lands in the future.


Other tribes are considering their next moves.

The Puyallup Tribe has formed a committee to study the issue. The group is trying to help decide tribal policies on possession and sales, including for tribal and nontribal sellers, spokesman John Weymer said. For now, tribal code allows possession of marijuana up to the limits in state law, but not sale of the drug.

A representative of the Squaxin Island Tribe, based near Shelton, was involved in communications between the Suquamish and the Liquor Board.

An attorney for the Squaxin sent an e-mail to the board suggesting an update to a previous agreement on liquor sales that would “allow the sale of marijuana and marijuana products by and to tribal enterprises in Indian country.”


But other tribes are moving in the opposite direction. The Yakama Nation has urged the Liquor Board to reject marijuana businesses not only on its reservation but also across a vast portion of Washington — a commitment the board hasn’t been willing to make.

At issue are 10.8 million acres of ceded lands in 10 counties where the tribe still holds hunting and food-gathering rights.

George Colby, a lawyer for the Yakama Nation, said marijuana hasn’t been part of the tribe’s traditional practices, and the tribe agreed in its treaty to turn violators of federal law over to the federal government.

A resolution approved in February by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians opposes the legalization of marijuana, calling the drug “a threat to the health and safety of all tribes, especially our youth.”

“A massive marijuana lobby — advertising and promoting abuse — has emerged in light of the legalization of the drug in Colorado and Washington,” according to the resolution.