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)

Consultants for South Dakota tribe’s pot resort enter differing pleas in court

One consultant pleads guilty to drug charge over his role in ordering seeds from company in Netherlands, while attorney for the other consultant says his client 'never had possession, actual or constructive, of the marijuana alleged in this case'

FLANDREAU, S.D. — Two consultants who helped a Native American tribe plan the nation’s first marijuana resort entered opposing pleas Monday to drug offenses, with the attorney for the man who pleaded not guilty arguing outside of court that South Dakota’s top prosecutor is proceeding under a “legal fiction.”

Jonathan Hunt, who oversaw the first crop for the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy count in the city of Flandreau, which is adjacent to the tribe’s reservation where the ambitious “adult playground” never took off. Eric Hagen, the CEO of the Colorado-based consulting firm Monarch America, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to possess, possession and attempt to possess more than 10 pounds of marijuana.

The charges were filed Aug. 3, eight months after tribal leaders destroyed the marijuana crop, fearing a federal raid, and walking away from the headline-grabbing scheme that they estimated would have yielded up to $2 million in monthly profits.

Jonathan Hunt, Monarch America consultant who worked on South Dakota tribe's planned marijuana resort
Cannabis consultant Jonathan Hunt checks marijuana seedlings growing at a facility on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in Flandreau, S.D., on Sept. 24, 2015. (Jay Pickthorn, Associated Press file)

Hagen’s attorney, Mike Butler, spoke publicly for the first time Monday, blasting Attorney General Marty Jackley for charging his client because he “couldn’t go after the tribe.”

“I am yet unaware of any evidence, any evidence, that my client possessed even a gram of marijuana,” Butler 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. Mr. Hagen never had possession, actual or constructive, of the marijuana alleged in this case.”

Butler said he will call tribal officials to testify in court.

Hunt and his attorney declined to comment to The Associated Press on Monday. Hunt is to be sentenced Dec. 19, though the date could change depending on Hagen’s case. The prosecution recommended probation.

The tribe’s attorney, Seth Pearman, said tribal officials are not commenting on the cases at the moment. No tribal officials are charged.

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.

Authorities allege that Hagen conspired to possess, possessed and attempted to possess the marijuana plants that were being grown at the greenhouse.

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, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe president Anthony Reider said they wanted it to be “an adult playground.”

The ambitious plans included a smoking lounge with a nightclub, bar and food service and, eventually, an outdoor music venue. Tribal officials planned to use the money for community services and to provide income to tribal members.

But weeks after the growing operation took off, the crop was burned in batches — about 600 plants in all — after federal officials signaled a potential raid.

Jackley warned against the idea from the outset, saying changes in tribal law to permit the operation wouldn’t protect non-tribal members. Hunt is not a member of any recognized tribe in the U.S.

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