/ Modified feb 5, 2015 10:58 a.m.

Could Marijuana Be Economic Boost for Native Americans?

Federal government says tribes would be treated same as states that have legalized pot.

cannabis spotlight (PHOTO: Laura Markowitz)

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By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk

A potential new economic development opportunity – growing and selling marijuana – is being studied by officials of Native American nations in Arizona.

That comes after the U.S. Justice Department said it would treat such activity the same as it treats states that have legalized pot.

While some see dollar signs, others worry about the destructive legacy that substance abuse has had on Indian Country.

Members of the Havasupai Tribe, which live below the rim of the Grand Canyon, have grown and smoked marijuana plants for more than a century. Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi said he was relieved to hear the Justice Department was recognizing tribal sovereignty when it comes to marijuana.

"I felt very free I don’t have to hide behind that rock," Tilousi said. "I don’t have to go into those bushes to smoke."

The Havasupai make what little money they have taking visitors by mule and helicopter to see their famous blue waterfalls in what is a seasonal revenue stream. So Tilousi said to have another economic source - growing and selling medical marijuana - would benefit his people.

Since the Justice Department’s memo was released in December, FoxBarry Farms has been inundated with more than 100 calls from tribes that want to start grow operations.

"All tribes generally speaking want the same thing, and that’s economic independence," said FoxBarry President Barry Brautman. His company helps tribes build casinos, hotels and now, medical marijuana operations.

"A tribal government, just like any other government, wants economic opportunity for its members," Brautman said. "They want housing, health care, education. They want to be able to fund those things themselves without having to ask for government assistance."

A tiny northern California tribe, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, will be the first to grow and process medical marijuana. FoxBarry Farms is helping the tribe build a $10 million grow house, and Brautman said he expects to recoup his company’s investments and then some.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly's spokesman Deswood Tome said he understands how lucrative pot could be, but realizes the complexity of it.

"This is opportunity for economic growth and jobs," Tome said. "But there are so many questions that remain as to the safety of people. How is it going to be controlled? Is this going to attract the criminal element?

For the Hopi Nation, the revenue potential is recognized, but officials pointed out that tribal law still makes marijuana possession illegal and that tribal members there and elsewhere have often struggled with substance-abuse issues.

Hopi tribal member Jonnie Jay said she smoked marijuana years ago and was skeptical about what good a marijuana grow operation would bring her tribe.

"Somehow it would get corrupted and not be for what it was intended to be," Jay said. "So it is not a good idea for our tribe’s economy, although we desperately need economic growth and opportunity.

In Southern Arizona, the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui nations have not weighed in on growing and selling marijuana as potential tribal enterprises.

Justice Department officials said the intent of the notice sent in December was not to motivate tribes to get into the marijuana business, but rather to prioritize laws against gangs and violence, driving while high and selling to minors, among other problems.

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