Federal agents seized at least 2,000 marijuana plants Thursday from land on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota, U.S. Attorney Ted McBride said Friday.
But the landowner, Alex White Plume, called them industrial-grade hemp plants and said the Oglala Sioux Tribe allowed him to grow the crop. He said agents from the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration removed 4,000 hemp plants, some as tall as 15 feet, that he had planted in April.
The raid was a surprise, White Plume said. No arrests were made Thursday. But White Plume said McBride advised him to seek legal help.
“The reason this was done is, we eradicate marijuana,” McBride said in an interview. “There are provisions in federal law to get DEA permits to cultivate marijuana. There was no permit in this case.”
There’s no legal justification for White Plume’s crop, the prosecutor said. Federal law makes no distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana, and there are no special DEA permits assigned for South Dakota, he said.
A conviction for growing marijuana without a permit will land people in prison for at least 10 years, with a maximum sentence of life behind bars, McBride said.
Because hemp belongs to the same family as marijuana, it has been illegal to grow in the United States since World War II.
Marijuana normally contains 3 percent to 15 percent or more of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannibol, or THC, while hemp has 1 percent or less.
McBride said a case in New Hampshire attempted to create a distinction based on THC but that a federal appeals court rejected the argument. If every political entity had the power to decide what constitutes hemp, some could set the THC level higher, he said.
“It’s a slippery slope,” McBride said.
Hemp stalk fibers can be used to make clothing, shoes, building materials, strong cords and ropes, a substitute for fiberglass, paper and other products.
Federal officials have said that permitting hemp farming would send the wrong signal to young people and would allow marijuana farmers to hide their crops with industrial hemp plants.
McBride would not comment on the methods used to seize the plants. “There was a sufficient number (of agents) to assure a safe, swift, efficient operation,” he said.
The U.S. Marshal’s Service and members of the Northern Plains Safe Trails Drug Task Force also were involved, McBride said. The task force is an initiative among tribes and federal, state and local governments to stop cross-border drug trafficking, he said.
McBride said White Plume’s plants were on two pieces of land: one north of Manderson and one near Slim Butte.
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