Industrial-hemp plants were being raised for building project
Pine Ridge, South Dakota — Federal agents seized thousands of marijuana plants growing at two industrial-hemp test plots on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation early Thursday morning.
No arrests were made, but grand-jury indictments are expected.
For 1,000 or more plants, punishment upon conviction is 10 years to life in prison.
Alex White Plume was awakened at 6 a.m. Thursday by the sound of a helicopter. Outside his home near Manderson, about 25 armed agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Marshals Service, and Northern Plains Safe Trails Drug Task Force were preparing to confiscate the industrial-hemp crop White Plume had tended since last spring.
The plants were to have been used for building materials. A group called the Slim Buttes Land-Use Association has been building a house from industrial hemp.
Agents reportedly cut and hauled away 3,782 plants in moving trucks from White Plume’s 1.5-acre test plot. A second 50-foot square plot near Slim Buttes, which was marked with a sign reading, “Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Agriculture experimental plot,” was also raided Thursday.
“It’s a sad day,” White Plume said Thursday. “We really put a lot of time and energy into these plants… I’m just trying to calculate how much money (the federal government) wasted on weeds.”
The Slim Buttes Land-Use Association has worked for several years to establish industrial-hemp as a reservation crop. It grows in poor conditions and can be used to make fabric, paper, rope, and other items.
Hemp is not smoked like some marijuana. It’s low in tertrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that gives a “high.”
In 1998, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed an ordinance legalizing industrial hemp with 1 percent or less THC. Members of the Slim Buttes group say their plants tested well below that level.
A 1937 U.S. law banned marijuana, but hemp supporters say that law was aimed at the drug, not at the industrial product. Hemp production was actually encouraged by the U.S. government during World War II.
But federal law doesn’t address THC, which hadn’t been identified in 1937. Federal officials say marijuana is marijuana, and it’s all illegal under federal law (although industrial hemp can be imported).
“The growing of any marijuana plant is illegal unless the SEA issues a permit after enforcing appropriate safeguards against the misuse of the plants,” U.S. Attorney Ted McBride said in a news release Thursday.
Among requirements for a DEA permit is a state law regulating hemp. A bill to let South Dakota farmers raise hemp was killed in the Legislature last February.
According to search warrant papers filed in U.S. District Court, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) criminal investigator Colin Clarke was told in June that White Plume was growing marijuana near Manderson.
On June 8, Clarke did aerial surveillance over White Plume’s home and spotted the marijuana field.
White Plume and the Slim Buttes group were purposely above-board and open about their hemp operations. On July 18, White Plume asked tribal law-enforcement officers to come to his home to view the growing operation. He also asked that sample plants be sent for analysis to verify that they contained less than 1 percent THC, as required under tribal ordinance.
That day, Clarke went to White Plume’s home where he saw marijuana plants ranging from 4 feet tall to 10 feet tall. With White Plume’s consent, he pulled one of the plants and sent it to the University of Mississippi.
The analysis could detect no THC in the plant.
White Plume also told Clarke he had been trying to grow hemp for three years. The first crop didn’t sprout, and last year’s crop grew to about 18 inches before dying. Youngsters stole a portion of his current crop, he said.
Slim Buttes Project Director Tom Cook and project spokesman Joe American Horse said they expected Thursday’s raid to happen.
“They think we’re doing something illegal, but we’re not really. It’s just and ordinary plant,” American Horse said. “We’re not promoting drugs.”
“We’re willing to get arrested,” Cook said, to bring the issue to light. “We’ve got clean records otherwise.”
He said he has a problem with the DEA interpreting the 1937 law to include all marijuana. “My concern is that when the police make the laws, then by definition you have a police state,” he said. “And that’s repugnant to our Constitution and all Americans.”
White Plume said federal officials told him they weren’t making any arrests because they “didn’t want to get into a political controversy.”
“We’re just in a state of shock.” he said, adding that he planned to harvest the plants next week. “We’re doing something that’s allowed by our tribal government, which has sovereign power on the reservation.”
All three men said the raid wouldn’t stop the hemp project but would only set it back.
“We’re not going to stop what we’re doing,” White Plume said. “We think what we’re doing is saving the world. So we’re not going to give up.”
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