PINE RIDGE, SD – In a growing number of US states, people can drink alcohol and legally smoke recreational marijuana. In others, they can use alcohol but not pot. 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 sprawling reservation, which has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol for more than 100 years.
Customers visiting a dispensary on a recent Friday said they see marijuana as a safe and natural way to relieve mental health disorders and chronic illnesses, which are common among tribal citizens. But they say alcohol has destroyed the health, safety and life expectancy of tribal 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 Bain said while shopping at the No Worries Dispensary in the small town of Pine Ridge. “Our indigenous people, they suffer from diabetes and cancer and various other diseases, but cannabis really helps them.”
Bain and her 22-year-old daughter said they use marijuana to ease their anxiety.
Marijuana use can lead to physical and mental health problems, but shoppers at No Worries stores say it’s less dangerous than alcohol, meth and opioids. These drugs lead to high rates of premature death on the reservation through car accidents, violence, and disease.
Established in 1889, the Pine Ridge Reservation spans more than 2 million acres of small towns, ranchlands, prairies and other global badlands formations. The US Census Bureau says about 20,000 people live there, but community members say that’s a vast undercount and the population could be as high as 40,000.
Alcohol was illegal there for most of the reservation’s history, but that didn’t stop bootlegging and abuse. “It’s killing our youth — it’s killing our future generations,” Bean said.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe said in a 2012 lawsuit that about 25% of babies born on the reservation have health or behavioral problems caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. The lawsuit was filed against the now-shuttered beer stores across the border in Nebraska.
Average life expectancy in Oglala Lakota County, which includes most of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is just 64.5 years, according to a 2019 estimate by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. That’s the lowest of any U.S. county and nearly 15 years below the national average.
Native Americans have high rates of health problems, which experts attribute to poverty and federal policies that damaged and dismantled their communities. People living on reservations often have limited access to health care services and healthy food, and their main health care provider is the Indian Health Service, which has been dogged by complaints of underfunding and poor quality of care.
On a recent Friday, Bean was among dozens of customers who pulled into the gravel parking lot at No Worries Dispensary. After showing ID through a ticket window, customers enter the store to buy loose marijuana, joints and edibles made in a commercial-grade kitchen.
Only a handful of No Worries customers say they only use marijuana recreationally. Also said they use it to relieve anxiety, pain and other medical conditions.
A customer’s eyes filled with tears as he lifted his shirt to reveal an ostomy bag, which doctors attached to his midsection after removing part of his intestine.
Another customer, Chantilly Little, said she was recovering from a strong drug addiction. The 27-year-old said she saw drugs killing tribals and wanted to be a responsible parent. “I’d rather smoke than other drugs because I almost gave up on my kids,” Little said.
Stephanie Bolman — a breast cancer patient, former health care worker and council member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe — was traveling through the region and decided to visit the No Worries store.
Ballman doesn’t use marijuana but wanted to see the dispensary. He is interested in legalizing medical marijuana on his reservation, located along 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 numerous ways,” Ballman said. “This has left many to fend for themselves and endure so much pain and suffering that medical marijuana has proven to be a lifesaver.”
In 2020, when tribal citizens approved a marijuana initiative for the Pine Ridge Reservation, they rejected a proposal to legalize the sale and consumption of alcohol at the reservation’s two casinos.
In 2013, voters narrowly approved a referendum to legalize alcohol conservation-wide. But the Tribal Council never implemented the change.
The Lakota people did not use marijuana in pre-colonial times, said Craig Howe, a Lakota historian. The Lakota and other Great Plains tribes also did not use alcohol until it was introduced by white traders in the 1800s.
Alcohol “was meant to control our people, and eventually it became a weapon of mass destruction,” said Ruth Cedar Face, an addiction treatment counselor and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Cedar Face says medical marijuana can be helpful for some medical and mental health conditions but is not a cure. “When it becomes a problem, when it becomes an addiction, it’s because they’re eliminating things that have to be dealt with, like trauma that’s usually at the root of any kind of addiction or unhealthy behavior,” he said.
Cedar Face said marijuana can cause psychosis, lung damage, reduced brain development and other problems for some users, especially teenagers and young adults.
Oglala Sioux law requires people to be 21 or older to buy or use marijuana. They can also face jail time for delivering marijuana to minors and fines for driving under the influence of drugs.
Dispensaries can only sell marijuana grown on reservations, and customers are prohibited from transporting marijuana elsewhere. But about 40% of No Waris customers live off the reservation, many of whom travel from South Dakota or the Black Hills of northwestern Nebraska, said owner Adonis Soltes.
Recreational marijuana is illegal in South Dakota, which means law enforcement officials can charge anyone for transporting or using marijuana outside the reservation’s boundaries. But the Sheriff’s Office in Pennington County, which borders the Pine Ridge Reservation, said they have not made any arrests on such charges.
This contrasts with the experience of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe in the eastern part of the state. State and local law enforcement officials are charging Native Americans and non-Natives who leave the reservation with marijuana from the reservation’s medical dispensary, according to Seth Pearman, the tribe’s attorney general.
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