The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is blazing a new trail for tribal nations. As the first tribe to venture into marijuana legalization by opening the nation’s first marijuana resort, the tribe is ushering in new possibilities for tribal sovereignty. Even despite the expected risks, tribal leaders are pressing forward with confidence.
In December 2014, the Department of Justice issued a memorandum allowing tribal nations to grow and sell marijuana. As long as tribes meet the same guidelines as states that have opted for legalization, federal prosecutors will not enforce federal marijuana laws. The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota saw this as an opportunity to assert tribal sovereignty, and capitalize on a valuable prospect to diversify their economy, and generate revenue.
“When completed, this economic development project will help to create many important additional new jobs and increase economic stability for the tribe and its many members,” said Anthony Reider, the tribe’s president. The project has potential to generate up to $2 million a month in profit.
The marijuana industry is among the fastest growing industries in the nation. At present, it is legal to purchase recreational marijuana in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Many more states have decriminalized marijuana possession, and according to an August 2015 USA Today article, 11 more states are likely to legalize recreational marijuana soon. Medical marijuana, at present, is legal in 24 states.
Marijuana is gaining greater acceptance, nationally. Even so, the biggest challenges anticipated in the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe’s venture will be the legal hurdles, as marijuana is illegal in the state of South Dakota.
To guide the venture, the tribe has contracted with marijuana company, Monarch America, Inc., out of Denver, Colorado. Monarch America also contributes the added benefit of company Tribal Relations Officer, Robert Shepherd, a former tribal Chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and former Chairman of the Great Plains Chairman’s Association. Navigating the unique jurisdictional issues while maximizing tribal sovereignty has been a thorough undertaking.
With many South Dakota state officials leery of the project, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is striving for full transparency. State officials have been invited to tour the grow facility and the adjacent dispensary and marijuana lounge, which is currently under construction.
The state-of-the-art grow facility tracks every plant with a barcode, from seed, to germination, to consumption, and full audits can be conducted at any time. According to Jonathon Hunt, cultivation expert and Vice President of Monarch America, “This is as clean and professional as it can get.”
All marijuana will be dispensed and smoked in the marijuana lounge, open to patrons 21 and over. One gram at a time will be dispensed per individual, for $12.50 to $15 per gram, and subsequent grams will be dispensed only after the package with bar code from the previous gram is returned. Lockers on site will store pre-purchased marijuana and personal pipes. A shuttle service will also be provided to avoid driving under the influence.
While some critics fear that marijuana has the potential to leave the facility illegally, tribal officials and Monarch America are prepared with thorough security measures. In the event that law enforcement suspects that marijuana confiscated outside of the facility, either within the Flandreau city limits or surrounding areas, is from the tribal operation, the confiscated marijuana can undergo genetic testing to debunk the claims.
A total of 60 different strains of marijuana will be available, among them, “Girl Scout Cookies,” “Aurora,” “Shark,” and “Green Spirit.” Additionally, plants are untouched by pesticides and heavy metals. “It’s the cleanest marijuana you can get,” says Hunt. Thirty-one of the 60 strains will be available for the New Year’s Eve opening, on December 31, 2015.
The opening night is likely to be a closed event, limited to the first 1,000 guests who purchase tickets. The venue will be complete with a VIP section, a smoking lounge, a bar with alcohol, live music, and food. The tribe’s Royal River Casino will provide rooms for overnight guests.
As of Wednesday, “about 100 people have already called to say they’re coming,” said Seth Pearman, Flandreau Santee Sioux tribal attorney. Many other tribes are also slated to visit the grow facility and resort site, and many more are expressing interest.
“Aside from making money, this is about sovereignty,” says Kenny Weston, Flandreau Santee Sioux tribal council member. “We have sovereignty and we have to assert it. The goal for many tribes is to become self-sustaining. Revenue from the marijuana venture will help us to get closer to this.”
As for the Flandreau Santee Sioux community at large, a survey conducted indicated that some tribal members don’t agree with the venture, but the majority, is in support.
“Alcohol and gambling are already here,” said Weston. “When casinos were a new option for tribes, many feared that they would bring organized crime and prostitution. This never happened.”
The same risks involved with driving away from the marijuana resort while under the influence are virtually no different than driving away from the bar. “If you disagree with marijuana, just don’t come, just as others choose not to frequent bars or casinos,” said Weston.
“The fear and stigma associated with marijuana is all propaganda,” said councilmember Weston. During boarding schools, our way of life was outlawed, and so many of our own people assumed it was bad. When marijuana is decriminalized, that stigma will also fall away.”
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal member and documentary filmmaker, Sarah Weston, is tasked with filming the groundbreaking progression of the marijuana venture for the tribe. “In documenting the process, what I am finding is that the marijuana issue is bringing out other issues in the community that were already there- for many, a veiled attitude of racism toward tribal members.” The city of Flandreau is largely non-tribal land, and tribal members are the minority in town.
While filming and conducting interviews, Weston encountered community members who have shared incidents of backlash since tribal marijuana legalization, citing harassment from city law enforcement, and some tribal members who held positions of influence in the city of Flandreau are coincidentally being removed or asked to resign.
“Some people don’t accept change well,” said Council member Kenny Weston, “and some others do.”
As for any general fears associated with the new venture, Monarch America, Inc. Vice President, Jonathan Hunt, says, “The fears are government scare tactics. We welcome anybody to do their own research. There has already been a 5-million person experiment in Colorado. Fears of crime and teen use of marijuana in Colorado, none of them came true. Nobody has died as a result of marijuana consumption. It is impossible to overdose, and crime actually declined in Colorado.”
For the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, the financial prospects of marijuana sales trump any legal or social risks of getting into the marijuana business. The economic impact anticipated will only be proven over time. In the meantime, the tribe is championing tribal sovereignty.
“We encourage other tribes to jump on board, band together, and back each other up on this,” said Kenny Weston. “We need to look ahead, and be prepared to help our people.”
The tribe hopes to devote revenue to projects for youth, culture and language programs, and mental health facilities.
Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree. Writer, Educator, and Culture Based Education Curriculum Developer, specializing in indigenous nation building curriculum.