Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Omaha Tribe shifts its focus from legalizing pot to growing hemp
By Joe Duggan
LINCOLN — Officials with the Omaha Tribe have tamped down their hopes of using marijuana to alleviate crippling poverty on their reservation.
Majorities in a November referendum voted to support legalizing the drug for recreational and medical purposes. The tribe’s elected officials said they would explore developing marijuana as a commercial enterprise on a reservation with 3,500 members plagued by 69 percent unemployment.
But they have taken no additional steps after a federal prosecutor promised legal action if the Omaha Tribe started selling the drug. And their enthusiasm was curbed even further when the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, which planned to open a pot lounge on New Year’s Eve, destroyed its marijuana crop ahead of an anticipated raid by federal agents.
“It’s not feasible — not yet,” Maurice Johnson, attorney general for the tribe, said last week.
The referendum also showed tribal support for legalizing the cultivation and sale of industrial hemp, a form of the cannabis plant with a minuscule percentage of the psychoactive compound THC. Johnson said the Omaha tribal council recently authorized a study on the economics of growing and selling hemp, which is used to make products ranging from building materials to clothing to hand lotion.
But legal questions remain about whether the tribe would face a standoff with the feds over a plant with no value to drug traffickers.
“We really don’t know yet if it’s worth the trouble,” Johnson said.
Tribal officials held the referendum in response to a memo the U.S. Justice Department released a year ago that seemed to indicate reservations would be treated the same as states where marijuana has been permitted and regulated. A total of 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, while four states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use of the drug.
The Justice Department has not enforced federal marijuana laws in states where the drug is legal and properly regulated.
Neither Nebraska nor Iowa allows recreational smoking or comprehensive medical use of marijuana. Both states, however, have laws on the books that allow limited use of cannabis oil low in THC for treatment of severe seizure disorders.
Nebraska’s U.S. attorney, Deborah Gilg, said in a recent interview that federal authorities would not stand by if the tribe legalized pot. She provided the newspaper with copies of letters she sent to tribal officials to make them aware of her position, including one that was mailed months before the referendum vote.
“I’ve made it clear to the tribe that would not be legal, and we would prosecute,” Gilg told The World-Herald.
The tribe operates a casino near Onawa, Iowa, which prompted questions about whether marijuana could be sold on the east side of the Missouri River. Gilg has discussed the matter with Kevin Techau, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, and, she said, “We are both of like mind.” A message left with Techau’s spokesman was not returned.
In the meantime, federal authorities have raided some tribal marijuana operations in other states while allowing others to continue.
On the one hand, federal officials appear opposed to tribes starting marijuana businesses in states where the drug remains otherwise illegal, said Johnson, the Omaha Tribe’s attorney general. That would explain why they were poised to act in South Dakota and why they’ve allowed tribes in Washington state, where recreational marijuana is allowed, to continue their pot operations.
But they’ve also taken action against tribes in California, where medical marijuana is allowed but recreational pot is not. Regardless, Johnson said he and other tribal officials detect a bias in the federal policy.
“It seems the federal government is more than willing to respect the sovereignty of the states but not the tribes,” he said. “That’s how it looks to us.”
Marijuana promises to be a hot topic during the 2016 session of the Nebraska Legislature, where a medical cannabis bill will be debated. Meanwhile, State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete said she is considering introducing a bill that would allow cultivation of industrial hemp.
Current state law permits hemp to be grown only by the University of Nebraska and the State Department of Agriculture, for research purposes. Ebke said because hemp has no intoxicating properties, it seems like it would make an excellent rotational crop in Nebraska.
Regardless of what she decides to do about the issue in the upcoming session, Ebke said she would like the federal government to get out of the way of tribes when it comes to hemp.
“Anything they can do to generate revenue is a positive thing,” she said.