Saturday, September 23, 2023
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Sioux See Bonanza in Pot-Smoking Lounge

FLANDREAU, S.D. (CN) - The Santee Sioux hope the marijuana "smoking lounge" they are building in a converted bowling alley will bring $2 million a month to the tribe, despite opposition from the governor, who calls the project illegal.

Workers are gutting a bowling alley across the parking lot from the tribe's new growing warehouse, and plan the grand opening on New Year's Eve. Tribal President Tony Reider envisions a hotspot with a stage for performers, a dance floor, a bar, restaurant, smoking lounge and marijuana dispensary.

The tribe invited all 105 members of South Dakota's Legislature to tour both facilities on Friday, but only five showed up.

Governor Dennis Daugaard was a no-show.

"He believes this facility violates federal law," his chief of staff Tony Venhuizen told Courthouse News. "He also opposes the legalization of marijuana in any part of South Dakota."

State Rep. Jim Bolin also declined. "I have a very firm belief that marijuana should not be legalized in any way in our state," Bolin said. "A tour will not change my mind." Both Daugaard and Bolin are Republicans.

Two Republican members of the state House, however, joined three Democrats for the tour, including first-term Republican Mathew Wollmann, from District 8, north of Sioux Falls.

"When people ask me, 'Why are you going to see that?' I say, 'It's important, it's my job,'" Wollmann said. "Especially with something like this that could impact the economy in the region to the tune of $2 million a month. That is huge. And I think if you aren't here, you should have been."

Republican state Rep. Elizabeth May, whose 27th District includes the Badlands, drove 320 miles to take the tour, motivated by her interest in tribal issues.

"I ran for office because I'm from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I wanted to make a difference, so tribal issues are always at the forefront for me, and getting the state and the tribes to work together," May said. "Because we really are partners - we're more of a partnership with the tribes than the federal government is."

The tribe's growing facility is already up and running, though none of the plants are mature enough for harvest. The giant, state-of-the-art windowless building took just seven weeks to build - less than the 12 weeks a marijuana plant needs to grow from seed to harvest.

"It was a maintenance shop that we gutted and renovated," said Jonathan Hunt, the tribe's marijuana consultant from Monarch America in Colorado.

The Santee Sioux legalized marijuana on the reservation in June, prompting Attorney General Marty Jackley to warn South Dakotans - twice - that "South Dakota law prohibits the internal and physical possession, distribution, and manufacture of marijuana by: (1) all non-Indian persons anywhere in South Dakota including within Indian country; (2) all persons, including tribal members, outside of Indian Country."

Jackley said in June: "I respect each tribe's authority to pass laws that govern Indian persons within Indian Country," but he reiterated the limits, in statements from his office on June 16 and 25.

Even the five lawmakers who did show up said they were concerned about the tension between the tribe's plans and the fact that marijuana remains illegal under state and federal laws.


President Reider assured legislators that the club will have strict rules.

Customers will be allowed to smoke just one joint every two hours, and must return the packaging from the previous joint before buying another one, to prevent them from "stockpiling."

Anyone caught trying to sneak the drug out the door will be banned from the club, and bouncers at the door will discourage customers from driving home if they seem to still be intoxicated, Reider said.

"We'll offer free rides or a stay in our hotel to people who shouldn't get behind the wheel," Reider said. "If they insist on getting in their car, we will call law enforcement to let them know."

Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana in some form; four states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreation. Tribal legalization raises another issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo on the issue in December last year, instructing state attorneys general to focus on eight key areas in tribal lands, including keeping the drug out of the hands of minors, forbidding sale to states where it remains illegal, and preventing marijuana sales from becoming a cover for trafficking other drugs.

Some tribes felt this opened the door for legalization, so long as they stayed away from the eight prohibitions. But aside from the Santee and a few others, the tribes are moving slowly.

About 75 tribes sent representatives to a January conference on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington, leading to a flurry of news reports that dozens of tribes might act. But so far as Courthouse News has been able to determine, only the Pomo tribe, in Mendocino County, and the Menominee, in Wisconsin, are moving on it.

The Pomo have built a growing facility, and the Menominee held a referendum in which 79 percent of voters supported medical marijuana and 58 voted for recreational use, but so far the tribe is just studying it.

In other words, fewer tribes than states appear to have legalized marijuana in some form, though there are 11 times more tribes than states.

During the tour of the Santee's operation, President Reider said: "It's not like we're cooking meth in that place."

The marijuana is grown organically, without pesticides. "If the feds come in and say it's illegal, we can always start growing produce," Reider added with a laugh. "Worst-case scenario, we can switch over to tomatoes."

The tribe's executive committee approved the 36-page ordinance governing marijuana use and distribution on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation by 5-to-1 to vote, but Reider says tribal members are not totally unified on the issue.

One tribal member who wished to remain anonymous called it "the worst decision in the history of bad decisions."

Republican state Rep. Leslie Heinemann, who represents Flandreau, said he skipped the tour because so many of his constituents disapprove of it.

"Both native and non-natives in my community have called asking if I can in some way stop this decision from going forward," Heinemann said. "I think the Tribal Council has made a decision that they are not supported in, and the majority of the people in the community, including non-natives, oppose it."

Heinemann said the main issues raised by his Sioux constituents are that the decision went against the advice of the tribe's elders, and that it sends a bad message to children.

"Whether you agree with marijuana use or not, many have indicated their dislike of the concept of showing their children that it is acceptable," Heinemann said.

Reider said he had to overcome his own knee-jerk opposition to marijuana.

"Growing up, I learned marijuana was dangerous, deadly and illegal. I thought marijuana was the devil's medicine. But after educating myself, I learned that no deaths have ever been directly linked to marijuana. And compared to alcohol, it makes people peaceful, not aggressive."

Above all, Reider hopes the project will bring revenue to the tribe, which he says has only 55 percent of the money it needs to run adequate programs. He said the money could be used for better housing, a fire department, medical facilities and ambulance service.

"I think it's going to be a very good deal for this tribe," Rep. May told Courthouse News. "I'm excited for them. I'm actually excited for the state. We're going to get people coming here from across the state, so they're going to be stopping at Wall Drug, they're going to be stopping in Mitchell at the Corn Palace, they're going to be stopping at all these places. I think it's a win-win for everybody."

Wollmann agreed. "I came away today with a positive outlook on the operation," Wollmann said, "and that's what I'm going to pass on to my constituents."The facility is 40 miles north of Sioux Falls, the state's largest city, next to the tribe's Royal River Casino

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