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Hemp agriculture case should travel to Congress

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The effort by Pine Ridge Oglalas to establish the right of Indian farmers to grow crops of industrial hemp continues to move along. The good news is that the community of people who are managing reservation hemp fields have opted not to confront the Drug Enforcement Agency. In long and sometimes heated discussions, the hemp-cropping families, their various lawyers and other advisors came to the conclusion that martyrdom at the hands of federal agencies was not a good route to go. We are glad that reasonable voices won over the advice of some of the lawyers who were encouraging confrontation.

The issue at Pine Ridge is economic development based on a productive agriculture. But the DEA has threatened to unrelentingly pursue its mandate to eradicate and, if necessary, prosecute any hemp growers who challenge the federal law. Arrest and seizure of hemp crops, followed by prosecution and imprisonment of family heads, can result only in untold hardship for children and other dependent family members.

Making the case for hemp in the context of a criminal prosecution of Indian families might make good headlines for media-savvy lawyers but it will not win the hemp case for the Oglala. Rather than widen the base of support for the Oglala's hemp case, confrontation tactics and federal prosecution of growers under current drug laws will push away the support of many people who will not want to be identified in a similar manner.

The case for hemp agriculture is strong, however. Joe American Horse, a former tribal president and traditional chief, points out that: "Industrial hemp can be used to make paper, clothes, medicines, foods and building materials. It has applications as a nut butter, shampoos and cosmetics. The hemp stalk's anti-bacterial qualities makes it useful for horse bedding."

The plant, easily separated from its cousin, marijuana, by careful testing for low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, grows well on reservation lands.

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Its product, if allowed to come to fruition, would yield immediate sales to willing buyers from various industries.

Invoking tribal sovereignty, Oglala Lakota President John Yellow Bird Steele has endorsed the hemp planting and recently wrote to the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota that the tribal government stands behind its hemp-cultivating members in this issue. Steele requested that federal agents "have no further contact" with tribal members cultivating industrial hemp.

Steele cited the 1998 Tribal Ordinance 98-27, which distinguished hemp from marijuana and establishes procedures for reservation farmers desiring to cultivate industrial hemp. Steele reminded the federal agency that Lakota farmers were encouraged by the U.S. government to plant hemp during World War II.

Under an immunity agreement, but with full intent to pursue their case, the Oglala farmers allowed federal agents to destroy their hemp crops July 30. Their attorneys are presently working on a civil suit against the federal government. One argument is that since industrial hemp is not a mind-altering product, it should not fall under the Controlled Substances Act.

We encourage the Oglala farmers and their supporters to make their case loudly and forcefully in the court of public opinion. Theirs is a case that might travel to Congress and has every possibility of gaining attention and support. While many public servants are reluctant to enter the debate over America's highly questionable approach to drug enforcement, the Oglala farmers' case is particularly commendable. However, it needs a champion in Congress; it needs a full hearing before the Indian Affairs Committee.

The Oglala tiospayes should never allow themselves to be painted as criminals. They are decent people attempting to support their families, now targeted as so many times in the past, by overreaching federal mandates. They should be supported in their effort to conduct a thorough public national campaign.