Colorado hemp is growing tall in this Boulder County research plot in 2014. (Elana Ashanti Jefferson, Cannabist file)

Hemp lawsuit after raid: Menominee Tribe suing feds in fight to grow crop

The lawsuit comes after federal and state agents seized about 30,000 hemp plants the tribe was growing on its reservation in late October.

Updated Nov. 18, 2015 at 4:55 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. — The Menominee Nation filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to clarify that the tribe has a right to grow industrial hemp — a crop related to marijuana — on its Wisconsin reservation.

The lawsuit comes after federal and state agents seized about 30,000 hemp plants the tribe was growing on its reservation in late October. According to court documents, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration believed the hemp contained marijuana and the operation was being managed by a Colorado man who runs a cannabis growing consulting firm.

The lawsuit, filed in Milwaukee against the two federal agencies, asks a judge to declare that the tribe has the right to grow hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill. That bill allows colleges or states to grow industrial hemp — defined as a cannabis plant that contains no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the chemical in marijuana that causes psychotropic effects.

The Menominee argues that it entered into an agreement with its tribal college to grow and research hemp with an eye toward selling it to help the impoverished reservation, which was legal under the bill. The tribe reached an agreement with the DEA and the DOJ to destroy any hemp that tested above the 0.3 percent limit for THC, the lawsuit alleges. But the agencies raided the reservation, raising concerns they could mount more raids and violate the reservation’s sovereignty, according to the lawsuit.

“Other states cultivate industrial hemp without threats or interference from the United States government,” Menominee Chairman Gary Besaw said in a statement. “In contrast, when our Tribe attempted to cultivate industrial hemp we were subjected to armed federal agents who came to our Reservation and destroyed our crop.”

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Gregory Haanstad, whose jurisdiction includes the Menominee reservation, declined comment.

According to an affidavit for search warrants tied to the raid, Bureau of Indian Affairs field tests on the Menominee hemp a day before the plants were seized came back positive for marijuana. The affidavit doesn’t elaborate or offer any percentages of THC.

The affidavit also alleges that the Colorado man was running the grow operation. The Menominee had no jurisdiction over him because he’s not a tribal member, making him subject to federal and Wisconsin law and Wisconsin law outlaws marijuana in all forms. One of the DOJ’s priorities, the affidavit added, is preventing marijuana from moving from states that legalize it, such as Colorado, to states where it’s illegal.

The tribe’s lawsuit makes no mention of the man or the agents’ justifications for the raid. Tribal attorney Timothy Purdon said the lawsuit address very narrow legal questions about the legality of growing hemp and declined further comment.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter: @trichmond1