Pine Ridge, SD – A growing number of states are allowing people to legally drink alcohol and smoke recreational marijuana. In others, they may use alcohol but not weed. But on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the opposite is true: marijuana is legal, but alcohol is prohibited.
Citizens of the Oglala Sioux tribe voted overwhelmingly in 2020 to legalize recreational and medical marijuana on their vast reservation, which has restricted the sale and consumption of alcohol for more than 100 years.
Customers who recently visited a dispensary said they see marijuana as a safe and natural way to find relief from mental disorders and chronic illnesses common among Aboriginal people. But he said alcohol has had a devastating impact on the health, safety and life expectancy of tribe members.
“Cannabis is a natural plant that comes from the earth — and our people lived off the land, and they got their medicine off the land,” said Ann Marie Bean while shopping at No Vries Dispensary in the small town of Pine Ridge. “Our indigenous people suffer a lot from diabetes and cancer and many other diseases, but cannabis is really helping them.”
Bean and her 22-year-old daughter said they use marijuana to relieve their anxiety.
Marijuana use can lead to physical and mental health problems, but shoppers at the No Vries store said it is less dangerous than alcohol, meth and opioids. These drugs result in high rates of premature death from automobile accidents, violence and disease on the reservation.
Established in 1889, the Pine Ridge Reservation covers more than 2 million acres of small towns, ranchlands, prairies and other badlands formations around the world. The US Census Bureau says about 20,000 people live there, but community members say that’s a much larger number and the population could be as high as 40,000.
Alcohol has been illegal there for much of the reservation’s history, but that hasn’t stopped piracy and abuse. “It’s killing our youth — it’s killing our future generations,” Bean said.
The Ogla Sioux tribe said in a 2012 lawsuit that about 25% of babies born on the reservation had health or behavioral problems because of exposure to alcohol in the womb. A lawsuit has been filed against the now-closed beer shops across the border in Nebraska.
The average life expectancy in Oglala Lakota County is just 64.5 years, according to 2019 estimates by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which includes most of the Pine Ridge Reservation. This is the lowest of any county in the US and is about 15 years below the national average.
Native Americans have high rates of health problems, which experts attribute to poverty and the ways in which federal policies have damaged and fragmented their communities. People living on reservations often have limited access to health services and healthy food, and their main health provider is the Indian Health Service, which has been plagued by complaints of underfunding and substandard care.
On a recent Friday, Bean was among dozens of customers who pulled into the No Worries pharmacy’s gravel parking lot. After showing ID through the ticket window, customers enter the store to purchase bulk marijuana, joints and groceries prepared in a commercial kitchen.
Few of No Vries’ clients reported using marijuana purely for recreational purposes. More said they use it to relieve anxiety, pain and other conditions.
One client was in tears as she lifted her shirt to reveal an ostomy bag that doctors attached to her midsection after removing part of her bowel.
Another client, Chantilly Little, said she was recovering from addiction to stronger drugs. The 27-year-old said she’s seen drugs kill tribal people and wants to be a responsible mother. “I’d rather smoke than other drugs because I almost gave up my kids,” Little said.
Stephanie Bollman — a breast cancer patient, former health worker, and councilor for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe — was traveling through the area and decided to visit the No Vries Shop.
Bolman doesn’t use marijuana but wanted to see a dispensary. She is interested in legalizing medicinal cannabis on her reservation on the Missouri River in central South Dakota, about four hours east of Pine Ridge.
“Unfortunately, the health services provided by the Indian Health Service have failed in myriad ways,” Bolman said. “Many people are left to their own devices and endure so much pain and suffering that medical marijuana has proved life-saving.”
When Aboriginal people approved a marijuana initiative for the Pine Ridge Reserve in 2020, they rejected a proposal to legalize the sale and consumption of alcohol at the reserve’s two casinos.
In 2013, voters narrowly approved a referendum to legalize alcohol reservations. But the tribal council never implemented the change.
Lakota historian Craig Howe stated that the Lakota did not use marijuana in pre-colonial times. The Lakota and other Great Plains tribes also did not use alcohol until it was introduced by white traders in the 19th century.
Alcohol “was meant to control our people and eventually became a weapon of mass destruction,” said Ruth Cedar Face, an addiction treatment consultant and member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
According to Cedar Face, medical marijuana can help with some medical and mental illnesses, but it’s not a cure. “If it becomes a problem, if it becomes an addiction, that’s because they’re procrastinating on things that they have to deal with, like the trauma that’s usually associated with any type of addiction, or that’s at the root unhealthy behavior,” she said.
According to Cedar Face, marijuana can cause psychosis, lung damage, stunted brain development, and other problems in some users, particularly teenagers and young adults.
According to the Ogla Sioux Act, people must be at least 21 years of age to purchase or use cannabis. They could face jail time for giving ganja to minors and fines for using drugs while driving.
Dispensaries are only allowed to sell marijuana grown on a reservation, and customers are prohibited from ingesting the cannabis anywhere else. But about 40% of No Vries’ customers live off the reservation, many of whom travel from South Dakota or the Black Hills of northwestern Nebraska, owner Adonis Saltes said.
Recreational marijuana is illegal in South Dakota, which means law enforcement officials can charge anyone caught transporting or using cannabis outside of the reservation’s boundaries. But the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, which borders the Pine Ridge Reservation, said it hasn’t arrested anyone on such allegations.
This contrasts with the experience of the Flandreau Santi Sioux tribe in the eastern part of the state. According to tribal attorney general Seth Pearman, state and local law enforcement officials are charging Native Americans and non-Native people who left the reservation with cannabis from the reservation’s medicinal dispensary.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that conducts in-depth journalism on health issues. In addition to policy analysis and surveys, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a thriving non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.
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