South Dakota OKs Industrial Hemp, But Marijuana Remains Illegal

Two weeks after the Oglala Lakota voted to legalize marijuana on Pine Ridge, the state of South Dakota legalized the growing of hemp. The state’s move reverses a long-held policy and is great news for farmers who want to grow hemp. For the Oglala Lakota and other Tribes hoping to go into the marijuana business, it’s tempting to see hemp legalization as a good sign. That may be wishful thinking, though, given Governor Kristi Noem’s opposition to legalizing marijuana.

By legalizing pot on the rez, the Tribe has set the stage for establishing a marijuana resort — a place where visitors can come to indulge, and an added attraction to the Prairie Wind Casino & Hotel. But as long as marijuana remains illegal in South Dakota, the Tribe can only sell to customers on Tribal land, who must consume on Tribal land. Dispensaries, now common in many states, where customers can buy their cannabis products and leave, are not an option for the Lakota Sioux, as customers could be busted as soon as they left reservation lands. But on the flip side of the coin, it presents an opportunity for a marijuana destination — an oasis in a state where its consumption is otherwise illegal. 

South Dakota has lagged behind the nation in terms of hemp and cannabis policy. Both plants are strains of the cannabis sativa species, with a key difference. Hemp has very low THC content, and is used for numerous purposes, including textiles, paper and biofuel. Cannabis or marijuana, on the other hand, is grown for use as a medical or recreational drug. In December, the federal government legalized growing of hemp, with just a few states still banning the crop. By legalizing hemp, South Dakota joins the other 47 states that already permitted hemp farming. Only Mississippi and Idaho still ban industrial hemp cultivation.

For would-be marijuana farmers, Tribal and non-Tribal alike, a bigger vote looms in November, when the state of South Dakota will vote on whether to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. 

South Dakota was late to the industrial-hemp table largely due to Governor Kristi Noem, who vetoed hemp legalization in 2019 because she felt it would effectively legalize marijuana. Agreeing to legalize hemp was a major compromise for Noem, although state lawmakers were just a few votes short of overriding her last veto — so perhaps the writing was on the wall. Still, Noem hasn’t indicated she’ll budge on keeping marijuana illegal.