New guidance from the federal Justice Department has the Mohegan tribe weighing the possible economic benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana on its reservation land.
In a memo, the Justice Department signaled it was not interested in enforcing marijuana laws on nationally-recognized tribal lands, so long as tribes adhered to rules outlined by the feds. The rules are aimed at preventing the sale of weed to minors, preventing people from driving while high, and preventing criminals from benefiting from marijuana sales. They mirror guidelines the feds offered last year on state medical marijuana laws.
In a statement, Mohegan Tribal Council Chief of Staff Chuck Bunnell commended the federal memo for recognizing the sovereignty of tribal governments.
“On the point of marijuana as a potential economic opportunity, Chairman [Kevin] Brown and the Mohegan Tribal Council have been very clear that they are looking at numerous opportunities to diversify into new emerging markets and products that promise to sustain their government for years to come. They have been equally clear that these new opportunities not jeopardize the significant investments they have already made into a highly regulated industry. This new information is being reviewed in that context,” Bunnell said.
But entering into the marijuana business is likely to impact investments made by the tribe in the gaming industry. Under the gaming revenue compact between the tribes and the state, the Connecticut State Police and the tribes maintain concurrent criminal jurisdiction for serious crimes. That means for crimes like selling or growing marijuana, both felonies under Connecticut statute, state police could still enforce the law under the compact.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said lawmakers would meet during the coming session to discuss the implications of the DOJ memo and how it impacts the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, which he called “good corporate neighbors.”
“I think there’s a wide range of people that would have to be in discussions if, in fact, the tribes decide to go forward with this,” Dargan said. “With the declining revenues they are getting from gaming, they are looking to diversify their products, if marijuana is a way to do that, I don’t know.”
Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, said the move would also see the end of other recent agreements between the tribes and the state. This year, both tribes entered agreements extending the arresting authority of their tribal police to non-tribe members. Previously, tribal police could only arrest members of the tribe.
“Now that the tribal police departments are full fledged police departments, they are obligated to enforce state laws, including the marijuana laws,” Lawlor said. “So if anyone was going to be selling it or growing it there, state laws would still apply.”
The prospect of legalizing marijuana comes as the Mohegans have started conversations designed to keep its gaming operation competitive in light of growing competition from casinos in nearby states.
The tribe and some lawmakers signaled last month they were interested in establishing another gambling facility in Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders called the idea unlikely.
“I don’t see Connecticut doing it,” Malloy said last month. “But that’s, at least initially, a legislative matter to be taken up. I’m not playing a lead role in this.”
A spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe did not immediately return calls for comment on this story.