Pubdate: Wed, 29 Aug 2001
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2001 Foundation for National Progress
Note: Web Exclusive
Author: Emily Huber


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.

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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