Sioux vs. DEA, Round Two

Federal agents have destroyed Alex White Plume’s industrial hemp crop for the second year running. But the courts may soon decide whether Native Americans can grow THC-free cannabis.

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For the second year in a row, the War on Drugs has come to the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian reservation. On the morning of July 30, federal agents arrived at tribal member Alex White Plume’s farm outside Manderson, South Dakota, cutting down and hauling away three acres of industrial hemp.

At least this time it was all very civil — unlike the day, in August of last year, when 36 heavily armed agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US Marshal’s office surprised White Plume and his family with an early morning raid, seizing more than 3600 hemp plants. (See “The Drug War Comes to the Rez.”) This time, agents arrived at a scheduled 8 a.m., shook hands with White Plume, and went to work. “They were real kind,” White Plume told reporters. “They were the nicest police officers I’ve ever seen.” White Plume’s sister made coffee for everyone, and someone brought donuts.

White Plume had agreed in advance not to resist the agents, in exchange for their not filing criminal charges against him. The oddly amicable arrangement grew out of the ongoing legal debate over the complicated intersection of tribal rights and federal drug laws that White Plume’s hemp farming has raised.

White Plume, along with the Oglala Sioux tribal government, wants to grow hemp as an agricultural commodity that could give a needed economic boost to the impoverished reservation. Federal law, however, draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana, even though hemp contains almost no THC, the psychoactive chemical found in its better-known cousin. Growing either is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

The Oglala Sioux maintain that their right to cultivate whatever crops they choose is enshrined in an 1868 treaty with the US government, and that White Plume’s crops are specifically sanctioned under a 1998 tribal ordinance that permits hemp growing. The tribal law sets industrial hemp apart from marijuana, and places a limit on the crop’s THC content. The Bureau of Indian Affairs tested White Plume’s hemp last year and found only trace elements of THC.

“We regard the enforcement of our hemp ordinance and prosecution of our marijuana laws as tribal matters,” Oglala Sioux Tribe President Yellow Bird Steele wrote in a July 18 letter to US Attorney for South Dakota Michelle Tapken. “I respectfully request that you direct the law enforcement agencies under your authority to refrain from further contact with our tribal members regarding the cultivation of industrial hemp.”

White Plume, meanwhile, is preparing a lawsuit aimed at establishing his right to grow hemp based on the 1868 treaty. But the suit wasn’t ready in time for the August harvest, and federal authorities let it be known that if the hemp stayed put, they would seek a criminal prosecution, says White Plume’s lawyer, Bruce Ellison. White Plume had grown enough hemp to earn as much as life in prison, so he and Ellison negotiated the agreement with Tapken.

The feds, explains Ellison, “are not particularly excited about prosecuting someone facing so many years in prison” for such an innocuous crime, Ellison says. “It creates a can of worms for the federal government.” Tapken’s office declined to comment on this year’s raid or the agreement.

“We didn’t back down in any way,” White Plume says. “We just allowed it to be pulled because we need time to strategize. We’re not going to give up.” White Plume says he’ll plant again next April, if he can come up with the seeds. According to Ellison, the lawsuit will be ready to file in time for next year’s planting.

For now, White Plume’s legal problems are overshadowed by financial ones. Before the raid, he says, a buyer had agreed to purchase his harvest for $250 a bale. “We really needed to make some money on it this year,” White Plume says. “Now I’m just counting my horses — I’m getting ready to sell some more. I hate doing that.”

“We’re just trying to make it,” White Plume says. “We’re not trying to do anything criminal.”

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Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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