Alex White Plume sits near hemp plants that are growing wild outside his house near Manderson, S.D., in this this June 26, 2007 file photo. White Plume is trying to get a federal injunction lifted that prevents him from growing the crop. (Chet Brokaw, Associated Press file)

Indian farmer blocked again by feds from growing hemp in South Dakota

FARGO, N.D. — Alex White Plume thought his decade-long wait to produce industrial hemp on a South Dakota Indian reservation was ending when the federal government softened its stance on marijuana enforcement and lawmakers expanded the development of hemp under certain circumstances.

But federal prosecutors in South Dakota refuse to lift an injunction against White Plume that prevents the enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Nation from growing the crop.

“One thing that really hurts my feelings is to get treated as minorities,” White Plume told The Associated Press. “We have always been here. We have superior standing.”

Hemp can be used to make clothing, lotion and many other products, but growing it has been illegal under federal law because it is a type of cannabis plant and looks like marijuana. Hemp, though, doesn’t make people high.

The so-called “Cole Memo” issued by the Department of Justice in August 2013 essentially says the federal government is going to concentrate on pot cases involving drug cartels, sales to minors, the use of firearms, and areas where the drugs are being sent from states where marijuana is legal to states where it is not. A subsequent DOJ guidance memo in October 2014 expressly made the Cole memo’s priorities applicable on Indian reservations.

White Plume figured he had more momentum when the federal farm bill signed last year had a provision allowing hemp to be grown through state agriculture departments and college research stations, which is happening in several states.

White Plume’s attorney, former U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon, wrote in April to Randolph Seiler, acting U.S. attorney in South Dakota, asking Seiler to reconsider the injunction. Seiler rejected the request.

Purdon said he’s disappointed with the DOJ’s position and says he plans to take legal action against the government.

“We don’t understand the idea that they would prioritize and then spend resources dealing with an injunction that is a relic from another era of marijuana enforcement,” said Purdon, an attorney for Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan.

Seiler declined to comment to the AP, but said in a letter to Purdon that White Plume does not meet the definition under the federal farm bill that would allow him to cultivate hemp. Purdon counters that the injunction does not allow White Plume to approach college or state researchers in the first place to talk about growing hemp.

“As a result of this decision, they are treating this hemp farmer in Pine Ridge completely different than hemp farmers in Kentucky and Oregon,” Purdon said.

Seiler said another factor is that South Dakota law does not allow the production of hemp and there is not an exception in the farm bill where industrial hemp is authorized under tribal law and not state law. White Plume said that violates treaties dating back 160 years.

“They should recognize our tribal sovereignty,” he said.

The White Plume family, including Alex and his brother, Percy, planted hemp for three years from 2000 through 2002, but they never harvested a crop. Federal agents conducted raids and cut down the plants each year. The injunction was ordered in December 2004.

John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said in a letter to Seiler that lifting the injunction would be an important step in supporting economic development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He said the White Plumes and other tribal members could produce products such as soaps, oils, animal feed, ropes, fabrics, rugs, furniture covers, tablecloths, building materials, insulation and fuel.

“Several of these uses have been demonstrated by Alexander and Percy White Plume, who have built a nice home out of ‘hemp-crete’ made of imported hemp fiber that they obtained lawfully in order to prove their point,” Yellow Bird Steele said.