Greener Pastures: How a South Dakota Indian Tribe Braved Adversity and Restarted Their Cannabis Industry


On Tuesday, June 29th, Moody County’s electricians will rewire the former training center for reservations. Hats and t-shirts will arrive on Wednesday. And hopefully on Thursday customers will arrive for the first legal cannabis dispensary in South Dakota – albeit on Indian land.

“We’re expecting about 100 or so,” said Eric Hagen of Native Nations Cannabis, watching a man walk by with a ladder. “We will see.”

But other questions remain.

Will the kitchen be in operation for baking edibles?

Are the cards issued in the casino?

More importantly, Hagen or the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe – a legally sovereign nation forty minutes north of Sioux Falls, SD that owns the pharmacy that operates independently of the state program – also expect state law enforcement cruisers at the border of the reservation and issues with non-tribal patients who possess marijuana?

“We haven’t had any law enforcement threats yet,” FSST Attorney General Seth Pearman told Forum News Service on the sidelines of a media tour of the tribe’s pharmacy and giant cannabis-filled greenhouse this week in Flandreau, SD. “At least not yet.”

You can’t blame him for the break.

Regeneration after a burned crop

Over five years ago, under the control of South Dakota officials and threats of a crackdown by federal officials, the tribe burned its entire cannabis crop – which they were hoping to sell in a lounge estimated to make an estimated $ 2 million a month – outside the chain link fence the facility.

“It was full,” recalls Kim Johnson, paralegal and member of the 700 tribe, and closes her eyes. “I remember the smoke.”

Seven months after state voters approved both recreational and medicinal cannabis laws, Flandreau has resumed operations. Cannabis consultant Jonathan Hunt – whom Johnson says she never thought she would ever see again – returned in December preparing 14-hour days for Thursday.

On the grounds south of the tribal casino and a gas station, contractors leave pick-ups, bearded technicians in sneakers and ear knives from Country Cannabis, a team from Oklahoma, carefully fill steam cartridges behind plexiglass and the green plants grow green in a hydroponic operation that is housed in two warehouses.

“I moved to greener pastures,” jokes Collin Cartwright, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who formerly traded Royal River Blackjack and now cuts tiny green chutes from young cannabis plants. “It’s a little more chilled, a little more relaxed.”

Upstairs, around 1,300 plants – a variety called “Blue Dream” on the barcode – are watered through blue tubes under humming fans. The plants drink 12 to 14 ounces a day. When done, the plants go to the flower room, a huge warehouse with pungent aromas where the green plants take in more sunlight and water – like a tropical forest.

Hunt and Hagen founded the pharmacy on what they had started in other states, including Colorado, over the past decade. Slight technological upgrades aside, they found the facility dormant for half a decade last December, like finding a mint condition Corvette in a garage – just remove the tarp and go.

Pearman, who was also the tribe’s attorney general in 2015, says Hunt and Hagen are back employees of the Flandreau Santee tribe. He added that 90% of the 15 employees are local and tribal officials see the cannabis business – like gambling in the past – as an economic opportunity.

“If you start now,” said Pearman. “You are five years late.”

The only game in town … until now

If edibles, flours, and concentrates are available on the attached store front in Flandreau, they will likely be the only cannabis legally sold in South Dakota for months, maybe another year.

Weeks after the November election, a county sheriff and colonel in the State Highway Patrol, with the blessing of Governor Kristi Noem, sued Amendment A (the recreational measure for weeds). The state’s Supreme Court is now reviewing the law after a district judge in Pierre blocked the law in February.

The medical measure has done a little better – it survived a legislative attempt to delay implementation by a year. But Health Department Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon has often warned that the pharmacies – where government-issued cardholders can buy medical marijuana – won’t be operational until next summer.

This means that Flandreau’s pharmacy appears – at least for the time being – way ahead of the competition.

“The landscape in general has changed,” Pearman said, noting the public vote and that the Biden government could signal greater support for respecting the tribes’ desire to grow marijuana, which is still federally banned. “It is clear that the overwhelming majority of the state is in favor” [legalization]. ”

Open to local, non-local patients

So on Thursday, tribal and non-tribal members are theoretically entitled to medical cannabis products. However, it is unclear how many will show up and prove to be eligible under the rules.

The tribe says they follow roughly the same rules as the state. Customers must provide a medical certificate showing they have a debilitating disease in order to apply for an FSST card (which can be printed on site). But once they leave the reservation, it’s not exactly clear what will happen.

The measure’s architect, Melissa Mentele of New Approach South Dakota, says some patient protection measures will go into effect Thursday, July 1, 30 over an affirmative defense in the Medical Marijuana Act, provided one has a doctor’s certificate, Should protect patients from convictions, if not necessarily arrests.

Most revealing, however, is that a final prosecutor’s plea to “repeal and replace” the law at a legislative session this summer exposed obstacles to incarcerating people after July 1 for possession of small amounts of marijuana – such as one “retrospective” certification in court as defense.

“I can tell you that any defense attorney worth his or her money will find a doctor who is able to make such an opinion,” said Roxanne Hammond, assistant prosecutor for Pennington County.

Hammond’s remarks met with criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, suggesting that decriminalization was at the center of the arguments for legalizing marijuana. Native Americans, who are more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis violations in South Dakota, have been particularly enthusiastic about growing and selling cannabis in the legal market.

“We’re ready to go,” said Pearman. “We’re not even talking about legalization anymore. We’re focusing on business.”

So the weeks, days, and now hours will go by until 10 a.m. Thursday, when marijuana becomes a legal crop in that state in a small shop that once housed the tribes’ law enforcement agencies in Flandreau.

“Blue Dream can become a bush,” said Anthony Flute, a Flandreau resident, who pruned the canopy of a green plant Thursday with the care of an award-winning florist. “Lets see what happens.”