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Native Sun News: Tribal members debate legalization of 'peji'

The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Alex White Plume is surrounded by the industrial hemp crop his family planted in 2000, later destroyed by Federal Drug Enforcement Agents.

Decriminalizing ‘Peji’ in Indian Country
By Ernestine Chasing Hawk
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY –– South Dakota Indian Tribes whose members remain some of the poorest people in the nation, can now take advantage of a Justice Department decision that has proven lucrative for Colorado and Washington.

On Dec. 12 the Department of Justice issued a statement saying that it would not interfere with Native American tribes who choose to legalize marijuana for medicinal, agricultural and recreational use on tribal lands.

In 2014, voters in four states Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia elected to fully legalize marijuana. This brings to 23 the number of states that have legalized marijuana in one form or another.

In light of the above, tribes interested in legalizing marijuana requested guidance from the Justice Department on the enforcement of the Controlled Substance Act on tribal lands.

The Cole Memorandum dated August 29, 2013 provides guidance to U.S. Attorneys on “proper prioritization of marijuana enforcement in their districts.”

The Cole memo lists eight law enforcement priorities where the feds will focus their “limited investigative and prosecutorial resources in all states” which according to the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee also includes Indian reservations.

The priorities are; “preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors; preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states; preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or illegal activity; preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use; preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.”

South Dakota Tribes, searching for new ideas to curb rampant poverty, can take advantage of this new loophole in the system as they have with casinos. However, legalization of marijuana on tribal lands is not automatic with the release of the Justice Department memo.

Each tribe will have to legalize marijuana according to their own laws. On the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, as with any resolution or proposed ordinance, 200 signatures must be gathered on a petition which is then presented to the Bureau of Indian Affairs before it goes to a vote of the people.

However tribes will not need state approval for legalization of marijuana as they do with casinos. Some tribal members, who for years heralded the benefits of marijuana and hemp production, are encouraged by the Justice Department decision.

Shannon Brown a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who lived in Durango, Colo. believes the prospects of legalizing marijuana on Cheyenne River are good.

“I think the people will support it. The marijuana business is booming in Colorado and Washington. The tribe can collect taxes from the sale of marijuana which will help support services and help build our infrastructure,” he said.

Alex White Plume a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the only farmer in the U.S. to grow industrial hemp after its prohibition in 1968, is interested in the news.

In 2000 after the OST passed an ordinance allowing the cultivation of low THC hemp, White Plume and his family planted industrial hemp on his farm near Manderson. Federal Drug Enforcement Agents made a surprise raid on his field and burned it to the ground.

When Native Sun News contacted White Plume he said, “Me and the witko (crazy) boys having been staying down at the hemp house. We are trying to get it fixed up before spring.”

White Plume said his interest has always been in the manufacture of hemp products but in light of the Justice Departments announcement he said he is going to have to “switch to marijuana.” Impact of decriminalization

Whether or not South Dakota tribes seize the opportunity to generate revenue from the sale of marijuana remains to be seen, however the act of decriminalizing marijuana on Indian reservations may have a more humanizing impact.

According to a study out of the University of Wisconsin the national average for incarceration of Native American men aged 18 to 64 is 3.1 percent. In South Dakota, the rate is 7.3 percent. Only Wisconsin had a higher Native American male incarceration rate at 7.6 percent.

Well the above does not include South Dakota Native Americans incarcerated in Federal Prisons, the figures poignantly unmask the fact that Natives in South Dakota are disproportionately incarcerated.

Bureau of Prisons figures do show that currently more than 4000 Native Americans are being held in federal prisons nationwide.

Gabor Maté in his book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a Close Encounter with Addiction” quotes former Seattle Chief of Police, Norm Stamper, who became an advocate of decriminalizing drugs, “Think of this war’s real casualties: tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Americans incarcerated, many for 20 years, some for life, families ripped apart... In truth, the U.S. sponsored international “War on Drugs” is a war on poor people…”

Gary Becker, professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of business estimates the U.S.’s war on drugs at a $100 billion a year.

Maté shares the story of Serena, a young Native woman from Kelowna, in Canada who deals drugs to support her family and her own addiction, “Proper nutrition, shelter, the controlled provision of her substances of dependence, counseling and compassionate caring are what most addicts need if we are to help wean them from their debilitating habits.”

Lloyd Goings from the Oglala Sioux Tribe believes it is just smart to legalize marijuana on his reservation because, “It’s already there. They might as well legalize it. These guys are dancing all around the issue. Remember prohibition, they were shooting and killing each other. They legalized it and stopped all that…”

(Ernestine Chasing Hawk can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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