MANDERSON, S.D. — Alex White Plume hoped his family could make a living growing hemp when he first planted seeds on an Indian reservation here, but years of fighting with federal drug officials have left him in financial trouble.
The White Plume family planted hemp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation from 2000 to 2002, but never harvested a crop. Federal agents raided and cut down the plants because U.S. law considers hemp to be a drug even though it contains only a trace of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a banned substance also found in marijuana.
“We had all these plans of grandeur and independence, to lead the way with industrial hemp,” White Plume said. “None of it worked out.”
White Plume plans to sell much of his ranching operation this fall. He said he probably can keep his house and at least some of the buffalo that graze among the pine-dotted ridges that give the reservation its name. His horses, a truck with license plates reading “HEMP” and other equipment likely will be sold to pay off some of his debts.
Even though White Plume lost a court case last year, he is ready to resume the cultivation of hemp if the federal government ever allows it. The plant, which is used to make rope, oils, lotion, cloth and other products, could help boost the economy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s poverty-stricken reservation, where unemployment is estimated to be as high as 85 percent, he said.
In 1998, the tribe passed a measure legalizing the growing of hemp on the reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota. The law should have been enough to allow hemp farming because of the sovereignty granted to the Lakota by treaties, White Plume said.
He planted hemp on his land in 2000, planning to make money by selling the seed to others, but Drug Enforcement Administration agents cut down his plants a few days before he intended to harvest them. The DEA also seized plantings by his brother and sister.
“All that left us in debt and demoralized, trying to figure out what to do because our sovereignty was directly attacked,” said White Plume, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
He never was charged with a crime, but the DEA sued him and got a court order to bar him from growing hemp. He argued that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave the Sioux the right to grow hemp.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against White Plume.Hemp is subject to federal drug laws, which require a DEA permit to grow it, the court said.
“We are not unmindful of the challenges faced by members of the Tribe to engage in sustainable farming on federal trust lands. It may be that the growing of hemp for industrial uses is the most viable agricultural commodity for that region,” the three-judge panel wrote.
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The court also noted that hemp is used to make many useful products, and the DEA registration process imposes a burden on anyone seeking to grow hemp legally.
“But these are policy arguments better suited for the congressional hearing room than the courtroom,” the judges wrote.
The best hopes for White Plume and other farmers who want to grow hemp are measures in Congress and North Dakota’s effort to get the DEA to issue licenses for the production of hemp, said his lawyer, Bruce Ellison.
North Dakota has authorized hemp growing and issued the nation’s first state licenses to grow hemp, but the two farmers with the licenses could face legal problems without DEA permits. The DEA has not acted yet on the farmers’ applications, and the farmers filed a lawsuit last month asking a federal judge to let them grow hemp without being subject to federal criminal charges.
Vote Hemp, an industrial hemp advocacy organization, says North Dakota is one of seven states that have authorized industrial hemp farming. The others are Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, and West Virginia, according to the organization’s Web site.
White Plume said he and his family have gone through some tough times, particularly when they were uncertain whether they faced federal drug charges. He also had to endure jokes that implied he was growing a drug.
“That was the hardest, hardest time,” he said.
White Plume intends to spend his time working on environmental protection and treaty issues, such as an effort to regain the Black Hills that were taken from the Lakota more than 125 years ago.
But if farmers ever are allowed to grow hemp, he’s prepared to plant another crop.
“We didn’t give up our struggle,” White Plume said. “We still want to grow hemp and we still got all our plans in shape.”