MACY, Neb. | Omaha Tribe leaders envision the Nebraska-based tribe's land in western Iowa as the most likely outlet for the sale of marijuana to the public.
On Tuesday, tribal members overwhelmingly approved three referendums that give the Tribal Council the authority to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes and grow plants for industrial hemp.
Tribal Chairman Vernon Miller said tribal leaders will conduct a feasibility study to gauge whether the business would make financial sense. The lucrative marijuana business has the potential to deliver a steady stream of revenue for a tribe that historically has struggled with high rates of poverty and unemployment.
Although the Omaha Tribe is based in Northeast Nebraska, with its main offices in Macy, the reservation also extends across the Missouri River into western Monona County, due to shifts in Missouri River's channel in years past.
Since the early 1990s, the tribe has offered Las Vegas-style gambling at its casino near Onawa, Iowa.
Miller said it's too early to say whether the tribal casino, known as Blackbird Bend, would expand into a so-called "pot resort."
The Santee Sioux recently became the first U.S. tribe to open a marijuana resort, on its reservation near Flandreau, S.D., about 45 miles north of Sioux Falls. Miller said Omaha Tribe leaders are closely watching the Santee Sioux resort's performance.
“We’re also being very cautious and are also gauging what happens in Flandreau,” Miller said. “We support what Flandreau is doing, but we also want to be cognizant that we’re in a different state and a different area than them.”
Miller said the Omaha Tribe's deliberations will include talks with law enforcement agencies, legal entities and U.S. attorneys in Nebraska and Iowa to ensure a plan, if proposed, would not violate federal or state laws.
“We recognize we are next to the states of Nebraska and Iowa, but our relationship is with the federal government,” Miller said. “As a sovereign nation, that’s who we deal with directly.”
Miller said the election results Tuesday show the shifting views on the marijuana issue among tribal members. Half of the population is younger than 28 years old, he noted.
“We were optimistic about how the vote would turn out just because of the progressiveness of the younger generation of our tribal members,” he said.
On the first ballot issue, 59 percent of voters supported the recreational use of marijuana, and 41 percent opposed it. On the second, 78 percent of voters backed the medicinal use of marijuana, and 22 percent opposed it.
On the third issue, 67 percent of voters favored the manufacture of industrial hemp on the reservation, and 33 percent did not.
Wehnona Stabler, CEO of the Carl T. Curtis Health Education Center in Macy, said medical marijuana would benefit the Omaha Tribe as an alternative treatment for cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Western medicine that we promote now is not ours. This was forced on us by the government -- the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Stabler said. “This is another natural plant we should be available to use as an alternative to us for the patient.”
In regard to production of hemp, a fibrous plant material that can be used to make clothing or rope, Stabler said there is an abundance of it on the Omaha reservation.
“It’s a true ditch weed, but the hemp that grows here would be considered industrial,” she said. “It just grows wild everywhere on the reservation.”