Menominee back legal marijuana

Referendum approved for new cash crop

Members of the Menominee Nation have approved measures calling for the legalization of marijuana as a way of generating new income for the impoverished tribe.

Referendum results released by the tribe Friday show voters supported marijuana legalization for medical use by a 76 percent majority and for recreational use by a 58 percent majority.

The tribe conducted the referendum over two days to gauge public support for exploring marijuana as a possible new cash crop on the 350-square-mile reservation north of Shawano.

In the aftermath of a failed bid to open a new Menominee casino in Kenosha, tribal members voiced excitement about the potential economic payoff of creating the first place in Wisconsin for legal marijuana.

“This is an opportunity for the tribe,” said Lew Boyd, who voted in favor of legalization and once served on the tribal legislature.

The nine-member legislature will review the referendum results and decide whether to legalize marijuana and clear the way for tribal members to not only use the illicit drug but also possibly produce it for sale to others — including the general public.

The council is scheduled to meet on Sept. 3.

Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw said although the referendum was advisory only, he and the other council members will engage in serious deliberations about how the tribe could implement the results in a manner that would “maximize the benefits and minimize the consequences.”

Besaw said officials also would reach out to surrounding law enforcement agencies for input on the notion of the Menominee legalizing a drug that remains illegal under state and federal law.

“We have a lot to consider,” he said.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a statement Friday acknowledging that the state has no jurisdiction to enforce criminal laws on the sovereign territory of the Menominee reservation. Schimel, however, said he has discussed the marijuana issue with tribal leaders.

He added: “We will continue to monitor this issue going forward.”

Tribal leaders presented the marijuana question to voters following Gov. Scott Walker’s decision earlier this year to reject a Menominee proposal to open a new casino in Kenosha. By some estimates, the casino would have generated more than $100 million a year for the cash-starved tribe.

Walker was faced with vocal opposition from other native American tribes that operate casinos elsewhere in the state.

In need of new business options, Menominee officials decided to explore marijuana amid a growing national movement to ease or repeal laws against the mind-altering leafy plant.

While some tribal members voiced concern about such issues as whether legalization would expose children to the drug, others rallied around the idea of capitalizing on relaxed attitudes toward marijuana and becoming first in Wisconsin to turn it into a business.

In separate ballot questions put before all tribal members aged 18 or older, voters endorsed legalizing marijuana for medical use by a margin of 899-275 and for recreational use among adults by a margin of 677-494.

Voting was conducted Wednesday and Thursday on the reservation, which is home to about 4,000 tribal members. Another estimated 5,000 members who live off-reservation could cast absentee ballots.

Ken Fish, a tribe member who voted yes, said he hopes the legislature will move cautiously and choose an approach that capitalizes on marijuana’s popularity while seeking to prevent underage drug abuse, driving under the influence and other potential pitfalls.

“If the safeguards are there, it’s a win-win situation,” Fish said.

Boyd predicted that tribal leadership ultimately would choose not to embrace legalization, largely because of the negative appearance of permitting an illicit drug on the reservation. Some officials probably agreed to the referendum in hopes that it would fail, Boyd said.

“That all blew up in their face,” he added.

Besaw, the tribal chairman, said some members of the legislative council might have their minds made up already, but he said the issue would get a full hearing. He voiced confidence that officials would weigh the benefits and drawbacks of legal marijuana.

The voter turnout for the referendum was impressive, Besaw added, calling the results “a fairly strong indication” what direction the tribe wants to go.

“We asked them to participate in the democratic process, and they responded,” he said. “I’ll never close my ears to good advice.”