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Seneca lawyer sponsors conference to tap into legal marijuana sales

Now that the federal government says it no longer will prosecute marijuana sales on Indian lands as long as tribes take steps to control the sales, some tribes are contemplating how to cash in on the marijuana business.

That is why a former president of the Seneca Nation of Indians is sponsoring a national conference for Indian tribes that hope to someday cash in on the legalized marijuana business.

The Tribal Marijuana Conference is scheduled for Feb. 27 at the Tulatip Resort Casino, near Seattle. Robert Odawi Porter, a Salamanca lawyer who served as Seneca president from 2008 until November 2010, is the co-sponsor and organizer of the event.

Porter said there has been growing interest among tribes all over the nation since October, when the U.S. Justice Department issued a “policy statement” that it no longer will prosecute marijuana sales on Indian lands as long as sales are controlled.

Porter has been closely studying the issue in preparation for what some believe could become a huge business opportunity for Indian tribes, possibly within the next few years.

He said the conference will be an “unprecedented” opportunity for tribal leaders to discuss the possibilities of “commercial marijuana cultivation, manufacture and distribution in tribal jurisdictions.”

Medical marijuana has been legalized in 33 states, and in recent years, the states of Washington and Colorado have legalized pot for recreational use, Porter noted. He said the “national trend in social attitudes” toward marijuana use has changed “dramatically,” with more Americans favoring legalization on at least a limited basis.

The Seneca Nation, the dominant tribe in Western New York, is watching and studying the issue closely but does not foresee anything happening in New York in the near future, said Martin E. Seneca Jr., the tribe’s chief counsel.

“New York has taken a baby step by acting to legalize medical marijuana. I do think that New York may be moving in a direction toward legalizing it for recreational use,” Seneca said. “That seems to be the wave of the nation right now, but I don’t see it happening right away here. I do think that people in New York will eventually start pressuring their legal representatives to legalize it for medical use. My best estimate is that is about five years away.”

The increased interest in tribal marijuana businesses was touched off by a Justice Department policy statement that became publicized late last year. The government memo said the Justice Department would no longer prosecute marijuana crimes on Indian lands – even in states such as New York where recreational sales of pot are illegal – as long as tribes took certain steps to control sales.

Requirements listed in the memo include preventing sales to minors, keeping profits away from drug gangs and cartels, and preventing violence and the use of firearms linked to marijuana sales.

But so far, there has been no Congressional action to legalize marijuana sales on Indian lands, and in New York State, there has been little public discussion of legalizing pot for recreational users.

“There’s been no federal legislation yet giving a green light to it, but a lot of tribes are very interested in looking into it, and getting ready for what developments might come in the future,” said Leslie Logan, a public relations specialist who has been promoting the marijuana conference. “There’s been a lot of buzz about it, no pun intended.”