Despite uncertainty over its legality, a Northwest Wisconsin Chippewa tribe is set to start growing hemp to turn into an oil used to treat seizures and other medical conditions.
The St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin would be the first of the state’s 11 tribes — but likely not the last — to try to grow hemp to make cannabidiol, or CBD, more available to treat some medical conditions and to provide jobs.
A 2014 Wisconsin law made use of the oil legal to treat some medical conditions. Changes to the law in 2017 made the oil more accessible with certification from a doctor saying that it would be used for a medical condition.
But the oil has remained difficult to obtain, with consumers often having to travel to states like Minnesota, where it was legalized, or have it mailed to them.
“Families need a safe, reliable distributor of cannabidiol and the Tribe’s willingness to serve in that capacity is absolutely critical right now,” said tribal council member Elmer Emery, while adding that the operation will also provide “much needed jobs and industry in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the State.”
Some of the state’s 10 other tribes could start up their own hemp-growing operations in the future to get in on an industry that some analysts say could generate $1.8 billion in sales a year nationwide by 2020.
Jeff Cormell, the tribe’s lawyer, said at least one other Wisconsin tribe is on a similar trajectory as the St. Croix Chippewa for starting a CBD production program, but he declined to name the tribe.
The tribe says it’s complying with federal and state laws, but it’s unclear if the state shares that interpretation.
While cultivating the plant in Wisconsin is still illegal, the tribe argues that because the state has chosen to regulate CBD, it can’t enforce criminal laws regarding CBD production on its lands, under a federal law that describes how states can enforce criminal law on reservations.
Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos declined to provide the state’s position, saying only: “The tribes are well aware of the limitations imposed by state and federal law related to the production of CBD oil, but we will not engage in a back-and-forth through the media with respect to this issue.”
Koremenos didn’t respond to follow-up questions, but Cormell said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel told the tribe that its plans were unlawful in a response submitted to the tribe after it sought comment on the plans from state and federal authorities.
Attempt in 2015
This wouldn’t be the first time a Wisconsin tribe has attempted to grow hemp.
In 2015, federal agents destroyed the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s industrial hemp crop even though the Menominee said they were lawfully growing hemp under a provision of the 2014 U.S. farm bill that allowed cultivation of hemp for research purposes.
St. Croix’s attempt will be different than the Menominee’s because the tribe has been transparent and adhered to all points of a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice Indian County marijuana policy that permitted tribal regulation of marijuana and hemp by consulting with the federal and state government while it drafted its ordinance, said Brad Bartlett, senior counsel at McAllister Garfield, a Denver-based law firm that specializes in the marijuana law.
Bartlett also consulted with the tribe as it developed its CBD plans.
However, a bill in the state Legislature that would legalize and regulate industrial hemp production in Wisconsin passed a Senate committee this week. Cormell said the bill would likely eliminate the chance for state opposition to hemp production on tribal lands.
The St. Croix Chippewa will grow the hemp — a plant in the same species of marijuana but genetically different — in a former fish hatchery building on tribal lands in Burnett County.
Hemp and marijuana contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the psychoactive effect in marijuana. Hemp, however, contains much less THC, making it nearly impossible to use as a recreational drug.
“It’s not like they’re growing marijuana for recreational purposes and people are going to get high off this,” Bartlett said. “This is the tribe stepping up to the plate to get involved in an industry where the state has opened the door. ... There’s a wide-open market here for cannabidiol.”
Cormell said the tribe intends to begin setting up the facility to cultivate hemp at the end of the month.
The tribe will spend about $1.2 million on startup costs, Cormell said. He said it’s difficult to estimate revenue generation at this point, though the tribe believes it will be significant.
In 2015, CBD was 11 percent of the $573 million hemp-based product sales in the U.S., according to the Hemp Industries Association.
More tribes are considering hemp or marijuana businesses as a way to offset stagnant or declining gaming revenue, Cormell said.
“Nationwide, there are tribes trying to get into this left and right,” he said.
In addition, the Burnett County Board of Supervisors supports the tribe’s plan, board chair Don Taylor said in a Thursday letter.
About 15 employees will initially work at the facility. About 20,000 square feet of the building will be used to grow hemp, with hopes of expanding operations in the 200,000-square-foot facility in Danbury, and hiring more employees to work in retail, production, packaging and distribution.
Besides CBD, hemp also can be used to produce a wide variety of products ranging from rope, building material, body products, bio-diesel and nutritional supplements.
‘It’s about families’
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved CBD as a treatment for any conditions, it has been shown to help treat childhood epilepsy, advocates said. It also could help reduce pain and inflammation and treat mental illness and brain trauma.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to provide this medicine,” Cormell said. “It’s not just a business decision. It’s about families, it’s about health care.”
Hemp-based CBD products can already be found in health food stores across Wisconsin, but Cormell said consumers aren’t often able to discern the origin or quality of the products.
CBD produced by the St. Croix Chippewa will be tested by the tribe to ensure quality. The operation will be governed by a three-person board, according to the tribe.
Sally Schaeffer, of Burlington, who has pushed for CBD legalization in Wisconsin, said she hopes the tribe’s operation helps open “the minds of legislators to growth and production”
Schaeffer’s daughter, Lydia, suffered from a rare seizure disorder and died in 2014, just before she could legally use CBD to attempt to treat the condition.
“I’m happy they are working to have this as an option to residents of Wisconsin,” she said. “I think it’s great that they’re trying to lead the charge for production.”