The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is comprised of descendants of "Mdewakantonwan", part of the Isanti division of the Great Sioux Nation, and refer to themselves as “Dakota”, which means friend or ally. This New Years was set to be a history-making night of celebration for the Santee Sioux and friends, after working for over a year to create one of the nation’s first legal marijuana resorts where sales and consumption for adults 21 and over were to be permitted. However, long-standing racial tensions between the state and the tribe, a reform-resistant attorney general and outdated state laws of South Dakota have created a myriad of legal obstacles for the tribe, including threats by law enforcement, causing tribal officials to burn over 1 million dollars worth of marijuana, and ultimately delay the opening of the lounge until further notice.

Last June, the tribe adopted an ordinance to legalize marijuana use at an entertainment venue on their small reservation, conveniently located next to its 25-year-old casino and hotel. Despite resistance from local officials, the tribe’s legalization experiment sparked an important dialogue in a region that is otherwise dry of legal marijuana. Having built a state-of-the-art cultivation facility to ensure the best health and safety standards possible, the tribe has endured a very expensive experiment, especially upon having to burn all of their crops once finding out law enforcement was planning to interfere, which according to consultants amounted to more than 1 million dollars worth of marijuana lost. The Santee Sioux’s marijuana resort has become another chapter in the never-ending story of state oppression against the tribe. Whether or not any such facility will open in a state like South Dakota, or if any of the local tribes can implement legalization still remains uncertain.

Eric Hagen, a native South Dakotan and currently a fulltime consultant for the marijuana industry was the lead consultant for the tribal project, and remains optimistic, “Being originally from South Dakota, the public reactions didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me was blatant infringement on tribal sovereignty and how the state was holding us back”. In addition, Hagen went on to explain that he felt the tribe was experiencing age-old racism from the Republican establishment. According to Hagen, the tribe offered a one-of-a-kind experience that couldn’t be found within a radius of hundreds of miles, “The resort was going to be a destination place for people 21 and older in the Midwest to safely and legally consume marijuana and have the option to stay at an adjacent hotel.” Hagen believes the tribe is offering the region a valuable opportunity, and will continue to work toward implementation of tribal policies and fight against drug stigmatization and blatant racism.

A policy statement issued by the Department of Justice late last year prompted Native American tribes across the nation to begin reanalyzing the pros and cons of legalization and the potential for needed economic activity. Many tribes have since made progress toward new legal models. While Hagen has been working to change the landscape in South Dakota, the Menominee tribe is moving ahead in Wisconsin, another state where marijuana is banned entirely. Out of about 1,000 voters, the Menominee tribe voted on legalization referendums with 58% supporting recreational marijuana and 77% supporting medicinal marijuana, and started growing industrial hemp for research until the DEA raided and confiscated about 30,000 hemp plants. While receiving mixed messages from the government, the Menominee and Santee Sioux tribes alike are engaging lawmakers and media platforms to persuade skeptical neighbors.

The policy statement created a wave of conferences and legal seminars, where upwards of hundreds of tribal representatives gathered to discuss the path forward in the new marijuana economy. South Dakota’s Attorney General Marty Jackley isn’t interpreting the federal memos as a green light for the Santee Sioux however, and he continues to aggressively speak out against the venture. On public radio last spring, Jackley specifically warned non-tribal residents to stay out of the resort or risk facing prosecution for drug possession, despite the resort being located on tribal land where marijuana has been legalized. Jackley also went on to warn tribal members, they also risked prosecution for using marijuana when leaving the resort and stepping off tribal land. The attorney general's chilling remarks were echoed by local law enforcement officials; one local Sheriff stated in a news interview that he was willing to haul away “a busload of prisoners by the time it is all said and done.” Hagen says the smear campaign and fear tactics boasted by the AG and top law enforcement officials made his project much more challenging, so he sent concerning messages to tribal advocates and marijuana consumers everywhere.

After months of on-going discussions with state officials, the Santee Sioux tribe and its consultants had to contain growing public scrutiny encouraged by Attorney General Jackley and local police, “We talked to everybody, we kept no secrets and we told the whole world about our plan. We weren’t creating anything new, because marijuana is already coming through the community, what we’re doing is putting a front door on that industry and creating a safe and supervised environment where it can be regulated” explained Hagen. Jackley’s interpretation of state law prompted resistance to the tribe’s resort because according to him, the law prohibits anyone from consuming or possessing any marijuana anywhere within the state’s boundaries, including on tribal land. The “possession by ingestion” or “internal possession” law means that anyone with marijuana in their bloodstream, is technically considered “in possession” of the drug. When asked via comment on his Facebook page, about whether or not residents from legal marijuana jurisdictions were allowed to visit South Dakota, the Attorney General replied, “It is incumbent upon the visitors of this state to follow the laws of this state.”

According to a seasoned drug war journalist, Phil Smith, the state has “the most bizarre state marijuana laws in the land” referring specifically to South Dakota’s internal possession law. The statute calls for a penalty of up to a $2,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail. The tribe isn’t alone because technically the same law would also apply to residents of legal marijuana states who could face legal consequences when visiting South Dakota if marijuana was still in their bloodstream.

Among the various tribes exploring new legalization models, The Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota would have been the first to successfully legalize marijuana on tribal land located entirely within the boundaries of a state where harsh drug war laws are still maintained. In addition to racial disparities in arrest rates, which significantly affect Native Americans living in South Dakota, the state has a long standing history of disputes over tribal sovereignty and what some describe as a flat out racial divide between the minority Native Americans and the largely white population.

Colorado and west coast consumers beware, while the Mount Rushmore state appears to be welcoming to all, that isn’t the case for those with THC in their bloodstream. One of the nation’s most draconian drugs laws is putting otherwise law abiding citizens behind bars and is being used as legal grounds to resist tribal experiments with new economic and social opportunities. According to Hagen, the Santee Sioux and many other tribes interested in legalization will be meeting with the Department of Justice sometime in January to seek a better position from federal officials. As many states continue to debate legalization in the upcoming election, many tribes will be working to advance their own legalization proposals as well; and the Santee Sioux and other tribal stories will continue to develop.