One South Dakota reservation, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, allows legal cannabis, though they still ban alcohol from within the reservation borders.
In 2020, the Oglala Sioux Tribe overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational and medical cannabis. The site has banned alcohol for the last 100 years, and they aren’t planning to change that anytime soon. Cannabis was legalized in 2020, but some of the structure was delayed thanks to the pandemic. Now, they have a thriving industry. However, when they legalized cannabis they also had the option to make alcohol legal on the reservation again, and chose not to.
Folks who live on the South Dakota reservation claim that they see cannabis as a safe and natural alternative to alcohol and a tool for managing things like mental health issues and chronic illnesses. They still see alcohol as something that can impact not only health and safety but also life expectancy.
“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 tells Press Herald from a local dispensary called No Worries. “Our Indigenous people, they suffer a lot from diabetes and cancer and various other illnesses, but the cannabis really helps them.”
Shoppers at the store also shared that they feel alcohol, meth, opioids, and other illegal drugs are more dangerous than cannabis, and that cannabis is different and better for their community.
The Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1889 and takes up 2 million acres and several small towns. It also comprises ranches, prairies, and badland formations. About 20,000 people live on the Reservation, and community members say some folks may not be counted by the U.S. Census Bureau and there are actually closer to 40,000 residents.
Throughout the history of the South Dakota reservation, alcohol has been illegal almost the entire time, but bootlegging is still common, and alcohol abuse is still an issue on the reservation.
“It’s killing our youth—It’s killing our future generation,” Beane says about the still-prevalent alcohol abuse problem.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a 2012 lawsuit alleging that about 25% of children born on the reservation had health or behavioral problems caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. They sued beer stores across the border in Nebraska that they claimed were taking advantage of folks with alcohol problems who lived on the reservation.
Indigenous people usually have a lower life expectancy and higher rates of health problems, which medical experts say are due to poverty and the harm their communities have been caused by the federal government. Reservations often lack good access to healthcare and healthy food. They are usually serviced by a group called the Indian Health Service, which is underfunded and not always able to provide the best care.
Of the customers polled at No Worries by the Press Herald, only a few of them said they only use cannabis for recreational purposes. Most of them use it for things like anxiety and pain, as well as other medical conditions. Reporters saw a patient with an ostomy bag who had lost part of her intentions, as well as patients who suffered drug addiction and cancer.
“I’d rather smoke than do other drugs because I almost gave up on my kids,” says Chantilly Little, a recovering addict.
“Unfortunately, the health care services provided by the Indian Health Service have failed so many in countless ways,” says Stephanie Bolman, a breast cancer patient who used to work in health care. She also serves on the city council for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “It has left many to fend for themselves and endure so much pain and suffering that medical marijuana has proven to be lifesaving.”
While the folks on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and many Indigenous people in South Dakota, are still struggling with lack of access to healthcare and social services and equity, legal cannabis access is a positive first step for them, as well as a clear alternative to alcohol.