Two members of the Navajo Nation were charged by tribal prosecutors on Jan. 4 for illegal cultivation of cannabis on tribal land. According to the Navajo-Hopi Observer, which covered the news on Jan. 9, the case involved Dineh Benally (described as a person of business) and Farley BlueEyes (a farmer) who operated a grow operation “in and around” Shiprock, New Mexico.
In 2020, a Navajo judge granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in an attempt to stop the farm from operating. At the time, Benally was charged with “interference with judicial proceedings,” according to the Navajo-Hopi Observer report. Benally’s attorney David Jordan, made claims that those interference charges were dismissed in December 2023, and that “It very much feels like harassment.”
Benally told his attorney that he was growing hemp and provided no further comments. Authorities have been unable to locate BlueEyes, who doesn’t have a telephone listing, and no one has stepped up to represent them.
One of the primary concerns about the farm’s intent has been the use of illegal labor. In 2020, police discovered Chinese immigrant workers trimming cannabis plants in a motel. Which prompted a raid on the farms and the destruction of approximately 250,000 plants. A group of those Chinese workers are now suing Benally, claiming that he brought them to New Mexico and forced them to trim for long hours.
Benally previously held a license to cultivation in Torrance County, New Mexico as well under the name Native American Agricultural Development Company, but it was revoked last week alongside another farm called Bliss Farm (unrelated to Benally or the charges). According to Los Alamos Daily Post, the Native American Agricultural Development Company incurred eight violations, including “exceeding the allowable number of cannabis plants under the Cannabis Regulation Act, improper security measures, no chain of custody procedures, and ill-maintained grounds with trash and pests throughout.”
Cannabis Control Division compliance officers found evidence of a recent harvest, but no such harvest was recorded in the state track and trace system. “The illicit activity conducted at both of these farms undermines the good work that many cannabis businesses are doing across the state,” said New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department Acting Superintendent Clay Bailey. “The excessive amount of illegal cannabis plants and other serious violations demonstrates a blatant disregard for public health and safety, and for the law.”
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren commented on the illegal activity. “Anyone coming into our communities who seeks to harm the [Navajo] Nation or our Navajo people will be held accountable under my administration, no matter who they are,” Nygren said.
Benally ran for Navajo Nation President in 2018, which at the time he campaigned for the benefits of hemp growth and production, and a slogan that read “Let’s grow together.”
In Northern California last July, Mendocino County law enforcement raided a cannabis cultivation operation on Round Valley Indian Tribe land and destroyed 113,361 plants on claims that it was operating illegally. The owner of the farm, Gary Cordova, responded by suing the sheriff’s department, claiming that he was operating legally and that the department trespassed on his land and violated his civil rights. According to a report by SFGate, tribal law requires law enforcement to contact tribal police before any raids occur, and before cannabis plants or products are destroyed. In this case, Mendocino County law enforcement did not notify the tribe before acting.
Meanwhile, other tribal nations have also been taking advantage of the cannabis industry in other parts of the U.S. The Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota was the first tribe in the nation to legalize cannabis following a Department of Justice memo published back in 2014.
Over time, more tribes began to see the potential of cannabis legalization. In 2020, the Ogala Sioux tribe in South Dakota began to discuss and vote for cannabis legalization, the Eastern Shoshone Native American tribe in Wyoming began to plan for medical cannabis, and both the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe in New York and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan established their own respective partnerships with cannabis companies.
Last July, the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota started selling recreational cannabis as of August 1, 2023. Red Lake Nation Tribal Secretary Sam Strong, referencing the benefits of cannabis to tackle opioid abuse, described the move to “not only to reduce harm, but to also bring in resources to help our people recover.”
In September 2023, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina voted to legalize recreational cannabis on tribal land. The decision uniquely allowed the tribe to create the first legal dispensary in North Carolina, while both medical and recreational cannabis remain illegal. Most recently, the Oneida Indian Nation in New York officially opened its first dispensary across from the tribe’s casino last week.