By Phillip Smith
Taking advantage of a 2014 Justice Department memo giving Indian tribes a green light to participate in marijuana commerce, as well as a 2014 congressional vote allowing for industrial hemp pilot programs, Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe earlier this year planted some 30,000 cannabis plants as part of a pilot project with the College of the Menominee Nation.
Last Friday, the DEA came and cut them all down.
The DEA says the plants were marijuana plants; the tribe says they were hemp plants. In either case, tribal officials and marijuana reform advocates don't understand why the grow was raided. Even if it were marijuana, it appears to be an operation well within Justice Department guidelines. And that's leading to some pointed questions about whether the feds have one standard for pot-legal states and another for the tribe-legal jurisdictions.
The memo that allows for marijuana commerce on the reservation includes eight potential enforcement triggers first formulated in a 2013 Justice Department memo (the Cole memo) advising federal prosecutors to lay off of recreational and medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal. Those triggers include diversion to other localities, money going to organized crime, and violence associated with the trade, among others.
The raid came after the tribe allowed a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee and local police to inspect the operation and take plant samples. And that visit came after a meeting between the BIA agent, the local cops, and an assistant US attorney.
According to the DEA affidavit for a search warrant, the samples tested positive for "marijuana," although there was no measurement of THC levels in the plants.
Industrial hemp is high in fiber, but low in THC, with levels at 0.3% or less. Pot produced for the recreational market, by contrast, typically has THC levels of 15% to 20% and beyond. There is a possibility some of the plants could exceed the 0.3% limit, but not by much.
The DEA affidavit also attempted to make a case that the hemp grow was violating those Justice Department triggers. The tribe had hired Colorado cannabis consultant Brian Goldstein to consult on its grow, and Goldstein, along with Tribal Chairwoman Ruth Wapoose, had in fact guided the feds and the local cops on their tour of the operation.
But Goldstein was "white," the affidavit noted, and several other people present appeared "non-native," and some vehicles had Colorado plates. This, the affidavit somewhat tortuously argued, violated the memo's provision about diversion from states where marijuana is legal to those where it is not. It seems to claim that hiring a cannabis consultant from a legal state is equivalent to importing pot from that state.
The affidavit also stretched to assert the operation was setting off other enforcement triggers. The lack of ventilation in a drying room "is a health and safety concern for the community and the individuals associated with the operation, which is a violation of the enumerated priorities listed in the Cole memorandum regarding adverse public health concerns of marijuana cultivation," it argued.
But drying hemp stalks in closed barns is standard practice and is used by farmers around the country, including those who produced legal hemp crops this year in Colorado and Kentucky.
And security personnel guarding the property had guns, leading the BIA agent to question "the ability for the security team to have weapons for protection because it would violate the Cole memorandum."
Now, the grow has been destroyed, any decision on criminal prosecution is in the hands of federal prosecutors, and the tribe and other observers are wondering just what is going on. After all, the Menominee aren't the only tribe to take the Justice Department at its word, only to be raided down the road.
This past summer, the DEA hit two California tribes, the Pit River Tribe and the Alturas Indian Rancheria, seizing 12,000 plants. The feds alleged Cole memorandum violations including financing from a foreign entrepreneur and fears the marijuana would be distributed outside the reservations in ways that violated the state's medical marijuana law. And the US attorney in South Dakota a month earlier refused to agree to lift an injunction barring Oglala Sioux tribal member Alex White Plume from growing hemp, which the Oglala Sioux Nation has legalized.
Are the tribes being held to a different standard than states where it is legal? Has there been a policy shift at Justice? Are individual federal prosecutors going off the reservation?
Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw doesn't know, but he isn't happy about it.
"I am deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has made the decision to utilize the full force of the DEA to raid our Tribe," he said in a statement after the raid. "We offered to take any differences in the interpretation of the farm bill to federal court. Instead, the Obama administration sent agents to destroy our crop while allowing recreational marijuana in Colorado. I just wish the President would explain to tribes why we can't grow industrial hemp like the states, and even more importantly, why we don't deserve an opportunity to make our argument to a federal judge rather than having our community raided by the DEA?"
Neither was Eric Steenstra, head of the hemp industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp.
"The DEA action in this case is egregious, excessive and presents an unjust prejudice against Indian Country and the rights of sovereign tribal nations," he said. "The Menominee Indian Tribe cultivated their industrial hemp in accordance with Federal Law, per the legislation put forth in the Farm Bill. This is a step backward, at a time when great progress has otherwise been made toward legalizing and regulating industrial hemp cultivation."
In an interview with US News and World Report, tribal law expert Lance Morgan, a member of Nebraska's Winnebago tribe who has worked with tribal governments pondering marijuana operations, said the Cole memorandum guidelines are not being applied consistently and warned the Menominee raid would be remembered as a historic betrayal.
"How can you allow people to buy marijuana in a retail environment in some states and then raid an industrial hemp operation of a tribe? The only difference is that there is a tribe involved," he said. "This odd federal policy of encouraging investment and then raiding the new business sets us back a few decades in federal tribal trust and economic policy."
The raids against tribal pot operations will kill investment in such ventures, Morgan said.
"The new federal policy of 'sort of' allowing tribes to get into the marijuana business is especially cruel and unusual because it encourages investment, but after the investment is made the federal government comes and shuts it down and the investors lose all their money."
Tribal law expert and former head of New York's Seneca Nation Robert Odawi Porter agreed that there is at least the appearance of a double standard.
"This certainly suggests a real divergence in policy approach for Indian country," compared to the pot-legal states, which have been allowed to develop enormous marijuana industries, he said. "It increasingly looks like the Justice Department guidelines are not being interpreted in the same way as they were intended."
It seems like the Justice Department has some explaining and clarifying to do. Can the tribes participate in the new marijuana economy like that states, or not? And does the DEA accept the legal definition and status of hemp? If not, why?