'Greener pastures:' How a South Dakota Native American tribe defied odds and re-started their cannabis industry

On Thursday, July 1, medical marijuana will be legal in South Dakota — though state officials caution it'll be almost another year before the product can be legally purchased in a state-licensed

Anthony Flute, a member of Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and employee for Native Nations Cannabis, demonstrates plant-trimming on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 at the hydroponic facility in Flandreau, S.D. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service).
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FLANDREAU, S.D. — It's countdown to July 1: South Dakota's new, green deal.

On Tuesday, June 29, Moody County electricians are wiring the former reservation workout center. Hats and T-shirts will arrive Wednesday. And, hopefully, customers for the first legal weed dispensary in South Dakota — albeit on Indian land — will presumably arrive on Thursday.

"We expect about 100 or so," said Eric Hagen , with Native Nations Cannabis, watching as a man with a ladder walks past. "We'll see."

But other questions remain.

Will the edibles-baking kitchen be up-and-running?


Will the cards be issued in the casino?

And, more importantly, does Hagen or the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe — a legally sovereign nation forty minutes north of Sioux Falls, S.D., who owns the dispensary that's being run independent of the state's program — also expect state law enforcement to park cruisers at the reservation's border and trouble non-tribal patients possessing marijuana?

"We haven't yet had any law enforcement threats," FSST Attorney General Seth Pearman told Forum News Service on the sidelines of a media tour of the tribe's dispensary and massive cannabis-filled greenhouse this week in Flandreau, S.D. "At least not yet."

You can't blame him for the pause.

Regeneration after a burned crop

Over five years ago, under scrutiny from South Dakota officials and threats of a raid by federal officials, the tribe burned their entire cannabis crop — which they hoped to sell at a lounge estimated to generate $2 million monthly — outside the chain-link fence surrounding the facility.

"It was full," remembers Kim Johnson, a paralegal and member of the 700-person tribe, closing her eyes. "I remember the smoke."

Seven months after the state's voters approved both recreational and medicinal cannabis laws, Flandreau has re-started the operations. Native Nations Cannabis co-owner Jonathan Hunt — who Johnson says she never thought she'd see again — returned in December and has been putting in 14-hour-days preparing for Thursday.

On grounds just south of the tribally-run casino and a gas station, contractors exit pick-ups, bearded technicians in sneakers and ear gauges from Country Cannabis, a team from Oklahoma, delicately fill vape cartridges behind Plexiglas, and the green plants grow verdantly in a hydroponic operation housed inside two warehouses.


"I've moved onto greener pastures," jokes Collin Cartwright, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who used to deal blackjack at Royal River and now snips tiny green chutes from fledgling cannabis plants. "It's a little more chill, a little more relaxed."

Upstairs, roughly 1,300 plants are being watered — one strain called "Blue Dream" on the bar code — through blue tubes under humming fans. The plants drink 12-to-14 ounces a day. When ready, the plants go to the flower room, a vast warehouse holding pungent aromas where the green plants drink up more sunlight and water — like a tropical forest.

Hunt and Hagen based the dispensary on those they'd started over the past decade-plus in other states, including Colorado. Other than mild technological upgrades, they found the facility this past December, which sat dormant for half-a-decade, like one finds 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 once again employees of the Flandreau Santee tribe. He added that 90% of the 15 employees are Native, and that tribal officials see the cannabis business — like gaming prior — an economic opportunity.

"If you're starting now," said Pearman. "You're five years late."

The only game in town... so far

When edibles, flour, and concentrates become available in the attached storefront in Flandreau, they will likely be the only cannabis legally sold in South Dakota for months, maybe another year.

Weeks after those November elections, a county sheriff and state highway patrol colonel sued Amendment A (the recreational weed measure) with the blessing of Gov. Kristi Noem. The state's supreme court is now reviewing the law after a county judge in Pierre blocked the law in February.

The medical measure has fared a little better — surviving a legislative attempt to delay implementation by a year. But Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon has frequently warned the dispensaries — where state-issued cardholders can purchase medical marijuana — won't be operational till next summer.


Meaning, Flandreau's dispensary — at least for now — appears way in front of the competitors.

"The landscape in general has changed," said Pearman, noting the public votes and that the Biden administration could signal greater support for respecting the wishes of tribes to cultivate marijuana, which is still federally prohibited. "It's clear that the overwhelming majority of the state is in favor of [legalization]."

Open to Native, non-Native patients

So on Thursday, tribal and non-tribal members will in theory be eligible for medical cannabis products. Though it's unclear how many will show up and prove eligible under the rules.

The tribe says they're following roughly the same rules as the state. Customers will need to show a doctor's note proving they have a debilitating medical condition to apply for a FSST-issued card (which can be printed on site). But once they leave the reservation, it's not exactly clear what'll happen.

The measure's architect, Melissa Mentele of New Approach South Dakota, says there are a few patient protections that come effective on Thursday, July 1. And Matthew Schweich, director of another pro-cannabis group in the state, also told reporters on Wednesday, Jun 30, about an affirmative defense in the medical marijuana statute, assuming one has a practitioner's certification, that should shield patients from convictions, if not necessarily arrests.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, a last-ditch plea by prosecutors to "repeal and replace" the law at a summer legislative meeting revealed roadblocks they'll face to locking people up over possession of small amounts of marijuana after July 1 — such as presenting an "after-the-fact" certification in court as a defense.

"I can tell you that about any defense attorney worth their salt will go and find a doctor that's going to be able to issue an opinion like this," said Roxanne Hammond, assistant Pennington County State's Attorney.

Hammond's remarks drew criticism from both Republican and Democrat legislators, pointing out decriminalization was at the heart of arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana. Especially for Native Americans, who are arrested at greater rates than whites in South Dakota for cannabis violations, enthusiasm has been high for growing and selling cannabis on the legal marketplace.

"We're ready to go," said Pearman. "We're not even talking about legalization anymore. We're focused on the business."

So the weeks, days, and now hours tick down until 10 a.m., on Thursday, where, inside a small shop that used to house tribal law enforcement on Flandreau, marijuana will begin become a legal cash crop in this state.

"Blue Dream can get to be a bush," said Anthony Flute, a citizen of Flandreau, trimming a green plant's canopy on Thursday with the care of a prize florist. "We'll see what happens."

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