Even though recreational cannabis was approved by voters in South Dakota, the future of this industry has been up in the air since the state’s Supreme Court ruled against legalization.

However, one tribal reservation is progressing even quicker than the state. The citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe approved of legalized recreational and medical cannabis in 2020 and are now a feature of their booming reservation. Yet, at the same time, consumption of alcohol is banned on the reservation and has been for over 100 years.

The reason for this is simple—tribal members believe cannabis can heal whereas alcohol only damages the health, safety, and life expectancy of members.

“Cannabis is a natural plant that comes from the Earth—and our people lived off the land, and they got their medicine from the land,” Ann Marie Beane, a cannabis customer within the tribe, told KHN. “Our Indigenous people, they suffer a lot from diabetes and cancer and various other illnesses, but cannabis really helps them.”

Some have put forth arguments that cannabis can be dangerous just as well as any other drug. But the tribe has refuted this, stating other drugs tend to lead to premature deaths, such as though violence, disease, or car crashes.

Established in 1889, the Pine Ridge Reservation sits on more than two million acres and is believed to have a population of around 40,000. Though, the official U.S. Census Bureau reports of about 20,000 people living on the land.

Why is Alcohol Banned on the Reservation?

Alcohol has been banned on the reservation since its founding, with only a brief legality period during the early 1970s. Still, as can be expected, plenty of tribe members still drink alcohol, usually purchasing it from nearby Nebraska.

These purchases developed into a lawsuit in 2012 as 25% of children born on the reservation had both health and behavioral problems caused by alcohol exposure in the womb.

Furthermore, the life expectancy within Oglala Lakota County is one of the lowest in the United States, with an average lifespan of around 64.5 years. In comparison, the average American lives for about 77 years.

Native Americans are more likely to develop health problems, likely due to poverty and mistreatment by federal policies. Not to mention, living on a reservation limits a member to health care services most Americans take for granted.

As Stephanie Bolman, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a breast cancer patient, told KHN, “Unfortunately, health care services provided by the Indian Health Service have failed in so many countless ways.”

These reasons may be one of the reasons why Native Americans are more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than any other ethnic group in the United States. And one of the primary reasons alcohol is banned on Pine Ridge Reservation.

Yet, tribe members hold a much different view when it comes to marijuana. In fact, only a few customers claim to use cannabis recreationally. Almost everyone reports receiving some medical benefit from it, whether that be relief from anxiety, pain, or other health conditions.

Recreational Cannabis Regulations within the Tribe

Throughout the Lakota people’s history, alcohol wasn’t used until it was introduced by white traders in the 1800s. Though, the same can be said for marijuana as no records show it to be a staple of the tribe.

For this reason, some tribe members are cautious about the recent legalization, including Ruth Cedar Face, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and addiction treatment counselor. She claims that marijuana is not a cure-all and usage should be monitored closely.

“When it becomes a problem, when it becomes an addiction, that’s because they’re medicating away the things they need to deal with, like trauma that is usually the core of any kind of addiction or unhealthy behavior,” she told KHN.

Like most places in the U.S., in accordance with Oglala Sioux law, people must be 21 or older before purchasing cannabis. Not to mention, members will receive fines and jail time for providing cannabis to minors or operating a motor vehicle while under the influence.

Not to mention, there are strict rules that cannabis is not allowed to leave the reservation. Naturally, though, at least 40% of one dispensaries customers live outside the reservation.

Since recreational cannabis remains illegal in South Dakota, anyone caught transporting it off the reservation can face charges.

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