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Menominee Tribe Approves Marijuana Legalization


Update: Members of the Menominee Nation of northern Wisconsin have voted yes to allowing both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana on their reservation near Shawano.

Tribal leaders announced results of the vote on Friday. The referendums are advisory only, but leaders had indicated they would move forward with drafting an ordinance to allow growing and selling marijuana on tribal land.

Original Post, Wednesday, August 19: A growing number of states have legalized the use of marijuana. Wisconsin is not among them. But on Wednesday, members of the Menominee Nation will begin voting on whether to legalize the use of the drug on their reservation near Shawano.

Tribal leaders say they’ve been exploring new revenue streams for impoverished members, and marijuana sales moved up on the list after Gov. Walker rejected a new casino.

Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw says the Menominee have been exploring the idea of growing and selling marijuana for some time. But, leaders kicked efforts into high gear in January. The federal government had just issued guidelines for tribes interested in selling marijuana.

“Had the governor not denied the Kenosha casino, the potential revenue from the casino would have removed any kind of positive the sale of marijuana would have brought. This may or may not have been something we even had to discuss,” Besaw says.

Over the next two days, Menominee members will vote in an advisory referendum - do they support legalizing marijuana on the reservation, for medicinal purposes and/or for recreational use. If the answer is yes, then the tribe would develop an ordinance spelling out the rules.

“Do they get prescriptions? Are there age limits? Is there certain criteria for types of illnesses?” Besaw asks.

Besaw says the Menominee would likely model its rules after a South Dakota tribe. It recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana on its reservation. The tribe grows its own and sells it only in designated areas. Besaw does not think the Menominee would be able to sell the drug to non-natives.

“We may only be looking at regulating those that we as the Menominee Nation have jurisdiction over and that would be Menominee and other Native Americans,” Besaw says. 

Former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon chaired the federal panel that came up with the idea to issue guidelines for tribes in states where the drug is illegal, such as Wisconsin. He says in the case of the Menominee, state and local authorities would have no jurisdiction, but tribal leaders must assure the federal government that they’ll follow its rules.

“You’ve got to make sure kids don’t get a hold of it. You’ve got to make sure it won’t become a public safety hazard, you’ve got to make sure you’re not growing it on public lands, things of that nature,” Purdon says.

Purdon says even though the Justice Department has given reservations the authority to legalize marijuana, not every tribe is exploring the possibility.

One steering clear of sales is the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin. Member Brandon Thoms says some pitched the idea to tribal leaders this year, but they rejected the notion fearing the consequences.

“To this day, we’re still battling drugs and alcohol. There’s a huge epidemic across Indian country of substance abuse issues. We’re building a drug and alcohol treatment center on the reservation as we speak, so the council looked at that as sending the wrong message to their membership,” Thoms says.

Menominee Nation leaders are not detailing what their other ideas are for pulling members out of poverty if they reject a marijuana industry.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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