Tribal leaders, lawyers and marijuana-industry representatives gathered in Tulalip for the nation’s first tribal marijuana conference, an event that served as much as a policy debate on the merits of legalization as it did an educational session.

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Hundreds of tribal leaders, lawyers and marijuana-industry representatives gathered in Tulalip on Friday for the nation’s first tribal marijuana conference, an event that served as much as a policy debate on the merits of legalization as it did an educational session.

More than 60 tribes from at least 25 states were represented, said Erica Curnutte, who organized the event.

Publicly, tribes have been wary of entering the marijuana market after the Department of Justice released a policy memo saying tribes could grow and sell marijuana.

Marijuana business was described by one proponent, Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom, as a “gold mine” in one session, and in another as a venture into unsettled legal space that will likely pay better for lawyers than those assuming the risk.

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Robert Odawi Porter, a lawyer who specializes in tribal government sovereignty, said the landscape of patchwork state, federal and tribal laws that govern marijuana in Indian country is messy, but could be profitable.

“It’s not simple, it’s not clear. If anyone tells you it is, they’re either foolish or lying to you,” said Porter. “If there’s business to be had and money to be made, the last thing we want is to be sitting and watching this happen.”

Moreover, said Porter, it will depend on where tribes are located.

“This is extremely fact-specific, law-specific to the tribe and state you’re in,” he said. For example, Porter said, Congress has given some states criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands.

Porter said tribes’ experience in the gambling industry, with its strict regulatory systems that require constant interaction with other governments, will help.

“Tribes are involved in complicated exercises of power,” said Porter. “We can set up regulatory schemes better than even some states.”

Porter’s law practice, Odawi Law, hosted the event along with Hilary Bricken and Robert McVay of Harris Moure, a Seattle firm that specializes in marijuana law.

Two prominent city attorneys evidenced the difficulty of setting up a strictly regulated system, however. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, a staunch marijuana advocate, and Tom Carr, the incumbent Holmes defeated in the 2009 election, spoke at length about the struggles they’ve faced implementing policy. Carr is now city attorney in Boulder, Colo.

Holmes said there are about 10 times as many unregulated, unlicensed medical-marijuana businesses operating in Seattle more than seven months after Washington’s state system launched. He also told the attendees “despite incredible new freedom, there are people who flaunt and display (marijuana consumption).”

Carr said Boulder, home to the University of Colorado, faces difficulty keeping pot out of the hands of college-age users. In Colorado, people under 21 must be authorized by a doctor to use marijuana. He noted 94 percent of medical-marijuana patients cite “severe pain” as their qualifying condition.

“We have a lot of college students in Boulder with severe pain,” said Carr.

Both city attorneys said marijuana lounges would help curb public consumption, as bars do with alcohol consumption.

Tribal leaders said the conference, which cost $605 to attend, was a useful education in pot policy.

Bob Iyall, the CEO of the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s board of economic development, said he attended because a number of tribal members had expressed interest. He called it a “micro step” toward a possible tribal decision on marijuana business.

“It could be a moneymaker,” said Michael Mason, who works in planning and economic development for the Nisqually tribe. “Even with that said, there are so many variables a tribe has to be concerned about.”

“There are still a lot of bugs to be worked out,” added Iyall, who has been following news of Washington’s experiment with a state-licensed marijuana system.

Many tribal leaders expressed concerns over sovereignty, drug impacts and youth access.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to convince our elders. It’s going to take a lot of work to protect our kids,” Henry Cagey, a council member of the Lummi Nation, told the audience. Cagey said it was imperative to work together to figure out the industry.

“The states are already doing it. This isn’t a new industry. We’re playing catch up,” said Cagey.