Growing pot on tribal lands out of state's reach

Posted at 4:36 PM, Nov 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-23 18:36:02-05

All forms of marijuana are illegal in Idaho and that's not likely to change any time soon.

But there is one part of the state where that could change quickly.

Law enforcement in Idaho goes to great lengths to track down and confiscate massive pot grows.
But there's one place in Idaho where pot could be grown and police can do nothing about it: on sovereign land of Native American tribes.

Bill Esbensen from New Approach Idaho says he thinks the groups should be allowed to grow it no matter what. 

"It would be great tourism for the tribes and a great way to create jobs," Esbensen says.

New Approach Idaho's goal is to make medical marijuana legal but Esbensen says if a tribe stepped forward to legalize pot it would be a step forward for the movement as a whole.

A tribe in South Dakota, the Santee Sioux, was the first in the United States to legalize pot.  They recently grew a crop and planned to open a large toking facility with a party on New Year's Eve. They got cold feet, shocking other tribes who've been watching closely.

"I was surprised," said Billy Barquin, the Kootenai Tribe Attorney General.  "Not only did they decide not to go forward with their plan, but they burned their crop."

The Santee Tribe stood to make $2 million a month on pot but was worried they might be raided not by the state, but by the feds.

"The state laws have no authority on tribal land over our people unless granted that authority by Congress," Barquin said.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but the Department of Justice has ordered its agents not to enforce it, allowing states like Oregon and Washington to make it legal.  But the next president could decide to rescind that order and then all bets would be off.

"Nothing's changed in the federal government to make anyone feel comfortable about it," said Esbensen.

So, tribes are moving very carefully.  Just like states where pot is legal, the few tribes that legalize marijuana are test cases that the nation will be watching closely.  If they pull it off, with no major repercussions, there's no reason why Idaho tribes couldn't someday follow suit.

The Kootenai Tribe and all other Idaho tribes we talked to have no plans to move forward with legalizing marijuana.