RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use. Justice Department recently released a memo saying it would treat American Indian tribes the same way it treats states that have legalized pot. Several tribes now are looking to get into the marijuana business. While some see dollar signs, others worry about the destructive legacy alcohol and drugs have had on American Indians. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales reports from Flagstaff.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Below the rim of the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai Tribe has grown and smoked marijuana plants for over a century. Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi says he was relieved to hear the Justice Department was recognizing tribal sovereignty when it comes to marijuana.
REX TILOUSI: I felt very free. I don't have to hide behind that rock. I don't have to go into those bushes to smoke.
MORALES: The Havasupai make what little money they have taking visitors by mule and helicopter to see their famous turquoise-blue waterfalls. And tourism is seasonal. So, Tilousi says, to have another economic source like growing and selling medical marijuana would really benefit his people.
TILOUSI: And this is how things should be.
MORALES: Since the Justice Department's memo was released in December, FoxBarry Farms has been inundated with more than a hundred calls from tribes that want to start grow operations.
BARRY BRAUTMAN: All tribes, generally speaking, want the same thing and that's economic independence.
MORALES: FoxBarry President Barry Brautman helps tribes build casinos, hotels and now medical marijuana operations.
BRAUTMAN: A tribal government, just like any other government, wants economic opportunity for its members. They want housing, health care, education. They want to be able to fund those things themselves without having to ask for government assistance.
MORALES: A tiny northern California tribe, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, will be the first to grow and manufacturer medical marijuana. FoxBarry Farms is helping the tribe build a $10 million growhouse. Brautman expects to recoup his company's investments and then some. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly's spokesman, Deswood Tome, says he understands how lucrative pot could be.
BEN TOME: This is opportunity for economic growth and jobs.
MORALES: But Tome says it's not that simple.
TOME: 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 elements?
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JONNIE JAY: Good afternoon. Welcome to Hopi. How are we doing out there? I'm Jonnie Jay. I'm from the village of Hotevilla. I'm one of the volunteer DJs on Hopi radio.
MORALES: Jonnie Jay introduces the bands at a recent Hopi reggae Festival. Jay smoked pot years ago and says she's skeptical about what good a marijuana grow operation would bring her tribe.
JAY: Somehow, it would get corrupted and not be for what it was intended to be. So it is not a good idea for our tribe's economy, although we desperately need economic growth and opportunity.
MORALES: Hopi leadership sees earnings potential, but current tribal law still considers possession of marijuana a criminal act. Many throughout Indian country worry that legalized pot could lead to some of the same painful consequences as alcohol. The Justice Department says the intent of the memo wasn't to motivate tribes to get into the marijuana business. It was meant to prioritize laws against gangs and violence, driving while high and selling to minors among other problems. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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