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Federal Agents Seize Hemp Grown On Tribal Land in Wisconsin

Federal agents destroyed a Wisconsin-based tribe’s industrial hemp crop that was being grown as a research project.

Federal agents destroyed a Wisconsin-based tribe’s industrial hemp crop that was being grown as a research project, and the tribe’s chairman says he’s perplexed as to why federal agents unilaterally ended a project the tribe believe was legal under the 2014 Farm Bill.

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin says federal agents seized the tribe’s crop of low THC non-psychotropic industrial hemp on tribal land last week. The tribe was growing the crop to research various strains to see which ones would work best for possible future economic development opportunities, said Chairman Gary Besaw.

The 2014 Farm Bill recognizes a distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp. The bill created an exception to the Controlled Substances Act to allow for the growth, cultivation and study of industrial hemp under certain circumstances and conditions.

“We had no intent of fooling anyone or tricking anyone. We were trying to grow industrial hemp,” Besaw said. “I’m perplexed.”

The tribe’s lawyer, Timothy Purdon, said the tribal legislature had earlier legalized hemp on the reservation and signed a memorandum of understanding with the College of the Menominee Nation. Under the Farm Bill, the hemp must be grown for research purposes and grown in conjunction with a state agriculture department or an institution of higher learning.

Both Besaw and Purdon said the tribe believed they had met all the requirements to be in compliance with the Farm Bill.

“They’re sovereign, just like a state, and the tribal legislature legalized hemp on their reservation, and there was an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] between the tribe and the tribal college, which the tribe believes is an institution of higher education as defined by the Farm Bill,” Purdon said.

When the harvest started a few weeks ago, the tribe invited Bureau of Indian Affairs agents to the reservation to observe the harvest, Purdon said. Because it was a research project, there were several different strains of hemp being grown. “The DEA agents expressed some concern,” Purdon said. “They said, ‘hmm, we wonder if that might have too much THC in it.”

The tribe then agreed to destroy the part that was under question and offered to have officials observe. Besaw noted that the tribe had clear guidelines in place stating that strains that were too strong were to be destroyed. The tribe had also offered to have a federal judge decide whether the tribe was in compliance with the Farm Bill conditions.

“They said no. Instead they came in – federal agents – and destroyed all the crops,” Purdon said.

Besaw said he wants the Obama administration to explain why tribes can’t grow industrial hemp like the states, and why the tribe can’t make their arguments before a federal judge.

Purdon, the former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota and former Chair of then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said he has tremendous respect for the DOJ, having worked with the agency for five years to help improve relations between the Department and Indian country. “I’m really proud of the progress we made together over the past five years. But with that history, I don’t understand why the Department is taking this action at Menominee under the Cole Memo when in Colorado they aren’t doing anything.”

The 2014 Cole Memorandum and the 2014 Wilkinson Memorandum discourage U.S. attorneys and federal law enforcement from enforcing federal cannabis laws in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis as long as certain factors are not implicated.

The tribe is now considering its legal options, Besaw and Purdon said. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin said he could not comment.