Legal marijuana sold in Colorado is having an impact outside the state's borders. (Karl Gehring, Denver Post file)

Opinion: Indian youth entangled in Colorado’s marijuana experiment

“Our youth are abusing marijuana as never before. The stuff they’re smoking and eating comes to our kids still in its packaging from Denver.”

I’m on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a seven-hour drive from Denver. The attorney general for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Tate (pronounced “Taah’tay”) Means — daughter of the late American Indian Movement activist Russell Means — is describing how Colorado’s experiment in marijuana legalization threatens law and order on one of the country’s poorest Indian reservations.

Means, a 30ish Stanford University graduate, already confronts some of the toughest crime challenges anywhere. The reported sexual assault rate at Pine Ridge is 10 times the national average. But the new spike in marijuana abuse still comes as a shock. Means and her colleagues — we’re joined by three tribal court judges — marvel at how Colorado voters thought they could keep our state’s marijuana legalization experiment to ourselves.

I’ve heard this before from many other Native nations throughout the West. As chairman of a presidential commission that recommends public safety improvements on the 567 federally recognized Native nations across the United States, my status as a Colorado citizen is often what sparks the most interest. The Dakotas, New Mexico, Arizona — seems like wherever I travel — Native people ask me to talk about “diversion,” the leakage of Colorado’s state-legalized cannabis products on their teenagers and, yes, children.

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Colorado-driven marijuana diversion to other states seems to be everywhere these days. Over lunch recently in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, wonders what Colorado is going to do about marijuana coming into his state’s public secondary schools. It isn’t whether diversion is happening, he says: Colorado’s state-sanctioned packaging of marijuana candy and other edibles speaks for itself.

The increasingly urgent question now is whether Coloradans intend to take any responsibility for this tragic state of affairs and, if so, how.

Passage of Amendment 64 legalized marijuana in Colorado but, as we all know, left intact federal criminal laws criminalizing the possession, distribution and cultivation of cannabis. Voters in Washington state approved a similar initiative there, which also took effect this year.

The promoters of both measures vowed that marijuana wouldn’t be diverted to places where it’s still illegal. Places like Pine Ridge, or the Yakima Nation in central Washington state. The Washington marijuana initiative, incidentally, exempted Yakima and other tribes from state marijuana legalization because Indian nations are sovereign — governments entitled to make and enforce their own laws that meet the needs of their citizens. Still, Washington-labeled marijuana is reportedly showing up at Yakima, too. Tribal leaders are so outraged they want to extend their marijuana ban to all areas of Washington state covered by the Yakima Nation’s original treaty with the United States.

In both Native nations and many others, tribal leaders are fighting a heroic but losing stand as state-legalized marijuana, cannabis-infused food, liquids, e-cigarette cartridges and other products make their way to young people from Colorado and Washington state-licensed dispensaries.

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This isn’t just a problem on Indian reservations, of course. But Native American youth are especially hard-hit. In its 2013 report to Congress and President Obama, the National Indian Law and Order Commission found that 25 percent of all American Indian young people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because they’re so often exposed to violent crime. That’s the same PTSD rate as returning combat veterans from Afghanistan.

Coloradans need to sober up to what we’re doing to people in other places who never bought into our state’s self-centered marijuana experiment. Regardless whether you voted for or against Amendment 64, it’s time to demand action from the president and Congress to reform our federal marijuana laws and strengthen their enforcement.

Revising the U.S. Criminal Code to enable all states and Indian tribes to opt out of federal marijuana laws — essentially how alcohol prohibition ended during the New Deal in the 1930s — offers state and tribal voters a meaningful choice instead of the chaos that often reigns today. Only federally authorized decriminalization of marijuana that respects the prerogatives of states and tribes can ensure a concerted national enforcement strategy against marijuana diversion.

That same national approach, backed by strong federal enforcement in partnership with state, local and tribal law enforcement and prosecution, has largely eliminated alcohol bootlegging and the gangs that profited by it. Rigorous federal requirements for the testing, regulating, marketing and advertising of alcohol, with local licensing for sale and distribution, likewise provides vital safeguards against use and abuse by young people.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. Colorado’s marijuana experiment is many things — a protest against Washington, D.C., a bow to Colorado’s tradition of political independence — but it’s also just plain self-centered. We all know it. The people in places like the Pine Ridge Reservation — experts in hearing broken promises from their neighbors — know it, too.

We’re not fooling anyone. It’s time for Congress to act.

Troy A. Eid, a former U.S. attorney for Colorado, chairs the National Indian Law and Order Commission.

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