Marijuana plants are lined up in rows at the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe's cultivation facility on Oct. 16, 2015, in Flandreau, S.D. The tribe destroyed its crop on Nov. 7 over concerns of a possible federal raid. (Joe Ahlquist, Argus Leader via AP)

South Dakota tribe burned pot crop over fear of federal raid

After tribal officials met with Justice Department, Flandreau Santee Sioux President Anthony Reider said the main holdup on the plan to open the nation's first marijuana resort is whether the tribe can sell marijuana to non-Indians, along with the origin of the seeds used for its crop

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota American Indian tribe that sought to open the nation’s first marijuana resort burned its crop after federal officials signaled a potential raid, the tribal president said Monday.

Flandreau Santee Sioux President Anthony Reider told The Associated Press the tribe had three weeks of discussions with authorities that culminated with a meeting in Washington that included a Justice Department official and U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Randolph Seiler.

Reider said the tribe wasn’t told a raid was imminent — only that one was possible if the government’s concerns weren’t addressed. He said the main holdup is whether the tribe can sell marijuana to non-Indians, along with the origin of the seeds used for its crop.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on specific discussions that may have taken place with tribes. Hornbuckle said U.S. attorneys have been directed to assess the threats and circumstances in their districts and consult closely with tribal partners and the Justice Department.

A spokesman for Seiler said he would have no comment.

The tribe had planned to open a lounge selling marijuana on New Year’s Eve. It was the first tribe in South Dakota to legalize the drug following the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision last year to allow tribes to do so on tribal land.

The tribe hired Denver-based consulting firm Monarch America to teach them the basics of growing marijuana.

Reider said the tribe made the decision Friday to destroy its marijuana and burned it Saturday. He said tribal officials wanted to avoid a raid that might have damaged equipment or the facility but also wanted to demonstrate good faith as it continues conversations with officials in hopes of resuming the project.

“We just felt it would be best to go in with a clean slate to look for answers on how to proceed so that all sides are comfortable with it,” he said.

He said more talks are scheduled this week with Seiler and with state Attorney General Marty Jackley. Jackley said over the weekend that the decision to destroy the crop was “in the best interest of both tribal and non-tribal members.”

The legalization of marijuana on the Santee Sioux land came in June, months after the Justice Department outlined a new policy that allows Indian tribes to grow and sell marijuana under the same conditions as some states.

Many tribes have been hesitant to jump into the pot business, and not everyone in Flandreau, about 45 miles north of Sioux Falls, supports the project.

The tribe has said the project could generate up to $2 million a month in profit. But some state officials have questioned the plan, including Jackley, who has said any changes in tribal laws wouldn’t affect nontribal land or anyone who wasn’t a tribal member.

Tim Purdon, a Minneapolis attorney who served as the U.S. attorney for North Dakota from 2010-2015, said federal officials can raid marijuana operations at any time because cannabis remains illegal under federal law. The new Justice Department policy doesn’t change that, he said.

“The whole memorandum is a department policy,” said Purdon. “It does not legalize recreational cannabis. It really sets forth the (enforcement) priorities that will be looked at.”

He said no operator should expect a stamp of approval from the federal government.

“The Department of Justice is never going to give a tribe or a merchant in a state where it’s legalized a letter saying you have permission to do this,” Purdon said. “Cannabis remains illegal under federal law. And looking for some sort of advisory opinion from the department saying that what you’re doing is OK is never going to happen.”