BY REGINA GARCIA CANO
One of two consultants who worked with a Native American tribe on its plans to open the nation’s first marijuana resort pleaded guilty Monday to a drug offense stemming from his role in the operation, including ordering pot seeds that were shipped surreptitiously from the Netherlands to the reservation.
Jonathan Hunt, who oversaw the first marijuana crop of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, entered his guilty plea to a drug conspiracy count in the city of Flandreau, which is adjacent to the tribe’s reservation in eastern South Dakota. The state’s top prosecutor filed drug-related charges Aug. 3 against Hunt and Eric Hagen, the CEO of the Colorado-based consulting firm Monarch America. The charges came eight months after tribal leaders destroyed the marijuana crop, fearing a federal raid and walking away from an ambitious and headline-grabbing scheme to develop “an adult playground.”
Hunt and his attorney declined to comment outside of court on Monday. Hunt is to be sentenced Dec. 19, though the date could change depending on Hagen’s case.
Hagen pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of conspiracy to possess, possession and attempt to possess more than 10 pounds of marijuana.
“I am yet unaware of any evidence that my client possessed even a gram of marijuana,” Mike Butler, Hagen’s attorney, said outside the courtroom. “The marijuana belonged to the Santee Sioux Tribe. They paid for it. They had legal ownership of it at all times.”
Butler said he will call tribal officials to testify in court.
Tribal council members declined to comment Monday. The tribe’s president and attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No tribal officials face charges in the case.
Court documents say Hunt ordered 55 different strains of marijuana seeds from a company in the Netherlands that were put in CD cases and sewn into shirts and shipped to the tribe’s office in August 2015. Authorities say Hunt and others planted about 30 strains in September and October at the greenhouse on the reservation.
“Hunt attempted to purchase these seeds with this credit card,” according to an affidavit, which cites an interview between Hunt and a Division of Criminal Investigation agent. “Hunt’s credit card was declined. A money order was obtained to purchase the seeds. These seeds arrived in a series of packages at the tribal office.”
But weeks after the growing operation took off, the crop was burned in batches – about 600 plants in all.
The Santee Sioux began to explore growing marijuana after the Justice Department outlined a new policy in 2014 clearing the way for Indian tribes to grow and sell marijuana under the same conditions as some states that have legalized pot. When tribal leaders initially touted their plan to open the resort on tribal land in Flandreau, which is about 45 miles north of Sioux Falls, President Anthony Reider said they wanted it to be “an adult playground.”
They projected as much as $2 million in monthly profits, with ambitious plans that included a smoking lounge with a nightclub, bar and food service, and eventually an outdoor music venue. They planned to use the money for community services and to provide income to tribal members.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley warned against the idea from the outset, saying changes in tribal law to permit the operation wouldn’t protect non-tribal members. Jackley has recommended probation for Hunt.