PINE RIDGE | After Robin Tapio endured 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer, she turned to marijuana to feel better.
"I wasn’t eating and the pain and everything,” the Pine Ridge woman said recently. “As soon as I got done smoking, I got my taste buds back and the pain in my body went away.”
But Tapio, now 55, was breaking state and federal law and facing possible imprisonment when she chose to smoke pot to ease her pain and stimulate her appetite.
That could soon change, however.
Last week, the Oglala Sioux Tribal council's business development committee approved a measure that starts the process to allow a public vote on whether to legalize marijuana use on the reservation.
If so, the tribe that just last year voted to legalize alcohol within its borders might become the first in the country to legalize marijuana.
Pros and cons
Tapio, a tribal councilwoman representing the Pine Ridge district, hasn't decided whether she supports the proposal.
As she sat last week in nearly-empty tribal council chambers, Tapio weighed her multiple perspectives. She used marijuana to recover from cancer treatments in the mid-1980s. But Tapio also regularly smoked pot until she was 45 and now worries that it may be addictive or cause health problems.
Tribal Councilman James Cross supports it, however.
He recalled the tribe's reaction when South Dakota voters in 2010 rejected a proposal to legalize medicinal marijuana. The statewide vote failed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. But a majority of Shannon County voters, where part of the Pine Ridge reservation is located, supported it.
"A lot of people who never tried it or never used it are going to be against it," Cross said. You're going to always have that resistance."
Cross said he smoked joints in 1990 to help ease pain in his lower back when prescription painkillers left him unable to function. While he supports the measure, he emphasized the medicinal needs over recreational use.
"It was really looking at the medical part of it first,” Cross said. "We really didn’t discuss revenue ... it was just the medical part of it.”
Tribal council members also argue that medical marijuana could ease the dependency of tribal members on powerful prescription painkillers.
“It did come up in one of our council meetings that people were abusing painkillers,” Tribal Councilman Kevin Yellow Bird Steele said. “This would be an alternative.”
The Pine Ridge reservation would likely be the first in the country to legalize marijuana, according to R. Keith Stroup, legal counsel for NORML, a marijuana law reform group.
"I am not aware of any tribe that has previously attempted this," Stroup wrote in an email. "And I am sure we would know if it had occurred."
If so, the Pine Ridge reservation would join a number of states that have begun to turn the tide on marijuana use. After having been legal for most of America's early history, states began outlawing the substance starting in 1913. The federal government followed suit in 1970 and since then thousands of people have been sent to prison for marijuana offenses.
But starting in 1996, when California legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, attitudes about the drug began to change. Within a few years other states, including Montana and Colorado, legalized medical marijuana. Then in 2012 and in defiance of federal law, Colorado and Washington voters passed measures to legalize it.
But as with other political issues, legalization has supporters and opponents. Those opposed to legal marijuana point to studies showing that it can be addictive and hurt the development of the brain in younger people.
Those in favor, like Tribal Councilman Garfield Steele, like to point out that alcohol, which is woven deeply into the country's social fabric, is legal.
"When you compare it to alcohol, you have numerous stats about alcohol killing people," Steele said last week in a phone interview.
The tribal council could approve a public vote in the next month or so, Yellow Bird Steele said.
"It's not something the council wants to make a decision on by themselves," he said. "It will be up to the people across the reservation."