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Red Lake Band mulls growing marijuana legally following Justice ruling

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A cannabis plant
This photo taken on July 15, 2014 shows a cannabis plant growing in a garden in Cologne, Germany.
Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa in northern Minnesota is exploring whether to grow and sell marijuana following a recent U.S. Department of Justice memo allowing the practice on reservations even in states where marijuana is illegal.

The U.S. Department of Justice in December ruled that American Indian tribes can legalize marijuana on reservations as long as they follow conditions that also govern states like Colorado that have legalized marijuana. The requirements include preventing the drug's distribution to minors, ensuring that criminals don't benefit from its sale and preventing drugged driving. 

Red Lake Nation's tribal council voted this week to conduct a feasibility study on the industry. David Manuel, an enrolled member of Red Lake Nation and an advocate for producing marijuana, argues that the industry would provide an economic opportunity for Red Lake. 

"It's about sovereignty, it's about being who we are and being in charge of our own destiny," Manuel said. 

Red Lake Indian Reservation is the only closed reservation in the state and spans more than 1,200 square miles. Manuel said the tribe's large land holdings give it an advantage over other businesses that may seek to grow marijuana. 

If tribal members do vote to legalize marijuana following the feasibility study, it would follow in the footsteps of 23 states, including Minnesota, that have legalized marijuana for medical uses and a handful that have legalized the drug for recreational uses. 

"We are Anishinaabe, we have a unique world view," Manuel said. "Personally, I'm asked to go gather medicines for my elders, and whoever is sick, out in the woods. These plants are medicine, and to not make these things available is criminal." 

Other tribes around the country are exploring the issue, although only Red Lake is publicly discussing the possibility in Minnesota. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe CEO Melanie Benjamin said Friday on MPR News' Daily Circuit that legalizing marijuana is not even on her tribe's radar.