South Dakota jury find consultant not guilty in pot case

May 24, 2017 - 2:37 pm

FLANDREAU, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota jury on Wednesday cleared a consultant on trial for drug charges after he helped an American Indian tribe pursue a marijuana resort on tribal land.

Eric Hagen, 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 34-year-old's trial started last week 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.

The Santee Sioux launched a push in 2015 to open the nation's first marijuana resort after the Justice Department outlined a new policy clearing the way for Indian tribes to grow and sell marijuana under the same conditions as states that had legalized pot, such as Colorado and Washington.

But the government 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.

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