In this June 29, 2015, file photo, Eric Hagen talks about marijuana in Sioux Falls, S.D. Roughly two years after an American Indian tribe began an ambitious push to open the nation's first marijuana resort in South Dakota, Hagen, a consultant who helped pursue the stalled venture, was brought to trial on drug charges. (Emily Spartz Weerheim, The Argus Leader via AP)

South Dakota jury acquits Colorado marijuana consultant of all charges in weed resort case

FLANDREAU, S.D. — A South Dakota jury on Wednesday cleared a consultant of drug charges after he helped an American Indian tribe develop a marijuana resort that the tribe once hoped would bring in as much as $2 million a month in profit.

Eric Hagen, 34, a consultant who worked with the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, had faced charges of conspiracy to possess, possession by aiding and abetting and attempted possession of more than 10 pounds of marijuana. The resort plan was ultimately abandoned.

The jury took only a couple of hours to find Hagen not guilty in state court. He had faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on both the conspiracy and possession counts and 7 1/2 years on the attempted possession count.

Afterward, Hagen said South Dakota had overstepped in charging him.

“The state didn’t have a case,” Hagen said afterward. “I never once thought that I was guilty.”

The verdict was a setback for Attorney General Marty Jackley, who opposed the tribe’s project from the start. Jackley, a Republican running for governor next year, said in a statement that he respected the verdict.

“I do continue to urge our South Dakota tribes to make their own determination that marijuana grows of this nature can affect the public health and safety on their reservations and across our state,” he said.

When the Santee Sioux announced their plan for the marijuana resort in 2015, it set the stage for a collision between the tribe’s hopes for economic development and state and federal law.

Their push came after the Justice Department, asked in 2014 to clarify whether they would enforce marijuana laws on tribal land as states such as Colorado and Washington were legalizing the drug, appeared to clear the way for tribes to do the same.

But the same 2014 Justice memo also reserved the right to enforce federal law that still says marijuana is illegal, and when federal officials signaled a potential raid, the tribe burned its crop.

Marijuana isn’t legal in the state of South Dakota. Hagen and fellow consultant Jonathan Hunt, officials with Monarch America, a Colorado-based company in the marijuana industry, were charged last year after helping the tribe. Hunt pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy count after agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement.

Authorities have said that Hunt and others cultivated the plants at the Flandreau grow facility before they were eventually burned — hundreds of plants in all. Assistant Attorney General Bridget Mayer said that Hagen aided and abetted Hunt in possessing more than 10 pounds of marijuana.

Hagen’s defense argued that the marijuana belonged to the tribe, not to him.

“That marijuana was the property of the Santee Sioux tribe,” defense attorney Mike Butler said. “They undertook to build this facility, to legalize it on their reservation, they sought to do so under a Justice Department guideline for Native American tribes.”

When tribal leaders initially touted their plan to open the resort on tribal land, Flandreau President Anthony Reider said they wanted it to be “an adult playground.”

They projected as much as $2 million in monthly profits, with ambitious plans that included a smoking lounge with a nightclub, bar and food service, and eventually an outdoor music venue. They planned to use the money for community services and to provide income to tribal members.

Reider said after the marijuana was burned that federal officials had concerns about whether the tribe could sell marijuana to non-Indians, along with the origin of the seeds used for its crop.

He has said the Santee Sioux have looked into the possibility of growing marijuana again, but said they’re waiting for more clarity at the federal level with President Donald Trump’s new administration.