FOX 11 Investigates hemp on tribal lands

Federal agents raided an industrial hemp grow on the Menominee Indian Reservation, October 23, 2015. (WLUK)

(WLUK) -- While farmers in Wisconsin can legally grow hemp, some Native American tribes say there's uncertainty for them. That uncertainty comes after a raid three years ago on the Menominee reservation.

In October 2015, federal agents raided a field on the Menominee Indian reservation. Tribal leaders said they were growing "industrial hemp" as part of a research program. The DEA said it seized thousands of plants agents described as "marijuana."

"You see all the county sheriffs and deputies and everything kind of basically taking all of the hemp and logging it off onto a truck. I was just kind of like, 'whoa. I did not get the memo for that,'" said Marcus Grignon, who worked on the project.

Grignon says the tribe had told the federal government what it was doing.

"We informed the government that we were going to be doing this at the same time. They came in, looked at the crop. It was kind of an ongoing negotiation between the Menominees and the feds," Grignon said.

According to the search warrant from 2015, federal agents tested samples of the plants. Initial tests came back "...negative" for marijuana. But the next day, federal officials said the plants "...tested positive." The search warrant return shows the agents destroyed an "undetermined amount of marijuana."

Past tribal chairman Gary Besaw told FOX 11 after the raid the tribe was trying to work with the federal government in good faith.

"We had an open-door policy. Come see us. You can come look, test it. If we were trying anything clandestine, I don't think that would have been a wise approach to do that," Besaw told FOX 11 in October 2015.

One of the main differences between industrial hemp and marijuana is the THC level. THC is the active ingredient found in marijuana that can get people high. Under the 2014 Farm Bill, industrial hemp has a THC level of .3 percent or lower.

"We believed we were well within the limits. If it was above limits, we were ready to take the appropriate action," Besaw told FOX 11 shortly after the raid in 2015.

Following the raid, the tribe filed a lawsuit, asking a federal judge to determine whether the tribe could legally grow industrial hemp. Under the farm bill, industrial hemp can be legally grown as part of pilot program in states which allow it.

In May of 2016, the judge ruled that since "Wisconsin law does not allow the growing of hemp... the hemp exception..." "...does not apply to the Tribe."

But that was 2016. Fast forward to today and Wisconsin law has changed. In November, the Legislature created a new state hemp program. For the first time in decades, farmers across the state are legally growing hemp. But some tribes are hesitant.

"Right now, we’re kind of in a waiting and planning stage," said Daniel Guzman-King, a councilman for the Oneida Nation.

He says the tribe is interested in growing hemp but is waiting for clarification from Congress before proceeding.

"It is not clear in the 2014 Farm Bill. Some might say that it is. Some might say that it isn’t," Guzman-King said.

"It’s such a murky area," said Donna Gilson, spokesperson for the state agency that oversees the hemp program.

"They certainly can participate in our program and get licensed, register with us. Then they would have all the same rights as any other participant in the program," Gilson said.

Grignon, who is now the co-director of an organization aimed at educating people about hemp, says the door is open for tribes. But he understands why they may be hesitant.

When asked if tribes can participate in the hemp program, Grignon replied, "They can participate today as long as they apply for their state license. I think one of the things that are going on right now is I think a lot of people got shook up by what happened on Menominee so tribes are hesitant. They’re waiting the feds to finally weigh in on it."

FOX 11 Investigates asked Guzman-King how much raid on the Menominee Tribe impacts the Oneida Tribe’s decision today. He replied, "It does affect us because we’re very leery of having the federal government comes in with armed forces and confiscate anything. We want to maintain a strong relationship, a good working relationship with the federal government."

Guzman-King says the tribe is eager to grow hemp but doesn't want to rush it.

When asked if the Oneida Nation will get into the hemp industry if the federal law changes, Guzman-King replied, "Most certainly. We’re planning on it."

Grignon says hemp will be an important part of the future for tribes and others.

"It’s a great opportunity, not only for tribes, but for small farmers as well, to diversify their income," Grignon said.

There is a possible change in the federal law regarding hemp. A measure was passed by the U.S. Senate as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. It would allow states and tribes to have industrial hemp programs. It would also allow hemp to be treated as a crop.

The measure was not included in the House version of the bill. But a compromise is expected to be discussed later this summer.

FOX 11 contacted the Menominee Tribe several times for comment. But the tribe did not make anyone available for an interview.

The Justice Department declined our request for an interview, referring our questions to the judge's ruling.

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