A ladybug traverses a hemp plant growing in a private plot in Boulder County in 2014. (Elana Ashanti Jefferson, The Cannabist)

Saying tribes aren’t a ‘state,’ feds urge dismissal of Menominee hemp lawsuit

MILWAUKEE — The U.S. Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration say a lawsuit from the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin seeking the right to grow an industrial crop related to marijuana should be dismissed.

The motion, filed Tuesday, comes in a case that began after 30,000 hemp plants were seized last year in a raid on tribal land.

It also highlights national uncertainty over federal and state conflicts over laws governing marijuana and its cousin, hemp. Several tribes across the U.S. have pursued or considered marijuana and hemp projects, but tribes in states where the crops remain illegal, such as Wisconsin, have faced challenges.

The Menominee have said they have the right to grow industrial hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill, which allows states and colleges to do so, provided it complies with state law. Their suit, filed in November, asks a federal court to rule that the tribe acted as a state and that Wisconsin laws, which say growing hemp is illegal, don’t apply on reservation land.

Menominee officials have said they had an agreement with the tribal college to grow, research and potentially sell hemp as a cash crop. But the federal agencies responded that the case should be dismissed since the tribe isn’t a “state” and the crop violates Wisconsin law.

Federal authorities suspected the Menominee’s hemp contained marijuana and was being managed by a pot-growing consultant from Colorado, where the drug is legal, according to court documents.

Calls and emails to the tribe weren’t returned Wednesday.

Hemp has numerous uses and can be used to produce paper products and plastics substitutes. It lacks the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. Nearly two dozen states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and a few have legalized it for recreational use.

The DOJ has told U.S. attorneys they shouldn’t prioritize prosecuting federal marijuana laws in most cases where tribes legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. It also asked tribes to follow a policy keeping pot away from children and criminal networks and not transporting it to places where it remains illegal.

Greg Moore can be reached on Twitter: @writingmoore