PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- The U.S. Justice Department is giving Native American tribes authority to legalize marijuana on their reservations, telling federal prosecutors the issue needs to be handled on a "government-to-government basis.

The shift is not expected to immediately change how law enforcement in Riverside County deals with marijuana on any of the 12 reservations here. And it's too early to know if local tribes will take the opportunity to legalize the drug on their reservations.

"We don't enforce federal law, we enforce state law, so any change in the federal law isn't going to affect us necessarily," said Capt. Ray Wood, commander of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department's Hemet Station and head of the department's Tribal Liaison Unit.

The department meets regularly with tribal leaders to discuss all aspects of law enforcement, he said. Marijuana has not been a focus of those meetings, and it doesn't appear the drug exists more on Indian land than other parts of the county.

Jeff Grubbe, chairman of the Palm Springs-based Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, said in a text message that the tribe has no comment at this time. The tribe's reservation covers 32,000 acres in the western Coachella Valley.

John Hall, spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office, also said it was to soon to speak on what the new federal guidelines could mean.

"This is a complicated issue that will need to be discussed with the tribes in this county as well as the U.S. Attorney's Office before we can comment further," Hall wrote in an email.

The growing acceptance and legalization of marijuana prompted some tribes to ask the Justice Department for guidance on enforcement of federal drug laws on tribal land.

The department responded in October with a policy statement to federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials noting that the diversity among Indian nations requires flexibility when working with tribal leaders on the issue of marijuana.

The policy statement follows — and is based on — a 2013 directive seen as making prosecution for marijuana crimes a lower priority for federal agencies.

The guidelines are the latest signal from the Obama administration that it respects the sovereign status of Indian tribes, said Stephen Pevar, an instructor on American Indian law at New York University Law School and author of the book The Rights of Indians and Tribes.

"It's not pro-marijuana or anti-marijuana," Pevar said Thursday. "It's pro-sovereignty."

Pevar, who was in Palm Springs for the three-day National Indian Nations Conference, said he would be surprised if tribes rushed to legalize marijuana.

"As a group, tribes have been very concerned about drug use. Drug abuse has been a problem on a number of reservations, just as in inner cities," he said.

Thursday's announcement came just a week after tribal leaders from throughout the nation, including Grubbe, met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but has been decriminalized for medical purposes in 23 states, including California. Recreational marijuana use is legal in two states, Washington and Colorado. Voters in two more states, Alaska and Oregon, approved initiatives legalizing recreational use set to take effect in 2015.

The recent statement "recognizes that Indian country is incredibly diverse, and different tribes will have different perspectives on enforcement priorities that are in the best interest of their community's public safety," Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

"Some tribes are very concerned with public safety implications, such as the impact on youth, and the use of tribal lands for the cultivation or transport of marijuana, while others have explored decriminalization and other approaches."

 
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