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Dope or Rope? Feds Raid Reservation of Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe

Bill Weinberg

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DEA agents raided the reservation of Wisconsin’s Menominee Indian Tribe last week, destroying what federal authorities say was a crop of illegal marijuana— but tribal authorities say it was a field of industrial hemp.

Acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Haanstad said agents executed a search warrant and seized about 30,000 marijuana plants weighing several thousand pounds. But tribal chairman Gary Besaw is flatly contradicting this.

“I am deeply disappointed that Obama administration has made the decision to utilize the full force of the DEA to raid our Tribe,” Besaw said in a statement, according to Milwaukee’s CBS 58. “We were attempting to grow industrial hemp for research purposes in accordance with the farm bill.”

“We offered to take any differences in the interpretation of the farm bill to federal court,” Besaw continued, accusing the White House of bad faith. “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 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?”

In May of this year, the Menominee tribe legalized cultivation of low-THC hemp by tribal licenses on its land, citing text in the 2014 federal Farm Bill that created an exemption to the Controlled Substance Act and allowed hemp cultivation for research purposes.

According to the statement, the tribe has engaged in numerous face-to-face consultations about its intention to grow hemp under the Farm Bill with former U.S. Attorney Jim Santelle and current acting U.S. Attorney Haanstad—as well as with Bureau of Indian Affairs agents.

“What makes the actions taken today even more difficult is that the federal government is very aware of the great unmet needs of the Menominee,” Besaw said. “Menominee County ranks at the bottom of the state in poverty and health statistics. The Tribe is trying to meet those needs by researching the potential economic opportunities of industrial hemp just as Congress intended when passing the Farm Bill.”

Once again, the operative issue appears to be tribal sovereignty.

Industrial hemp crops are currently being grown in Kentucky, Colorado and a handful of other states in compliance with the Farm Bill. But the bill stipulates that the exemption from federal law only applies in states that permit industrial hemp cultivation.

According to the Vote Hemp website, this does not include Wisconsin. The Menominee are arguing that they should be afforded the same respect as a sovereign entity enjoyed by the 50 states, with their right to grow hemp under terms of the Farm Bill recognized. The federal contention that the crop was marijuana, rather than hemp, seems to be more a matter of politics than THC content.

Bill Weinberg is based in New York City.

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