Navajo Nation charges 2 tribal members with illegally growing marijuana as part of complex case

Jan 4, 2024, 5:43 PM

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — Authorities on the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. have charged two tribal members with illegally growing marijuana on the Navajo Nation, marking just the latest development in a years-long case that also has involved allegations of forced labor.

Tribal prosecutors announced the charges Thursday, claiming that Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and farmer Farley BlueEyes had operated a massive marijuana growing operation in and around Shiprock, New Mexico. The two men were expected to be arraigned on the charges in late January, prosecutors said.

Benally had previously been charged for interference with judicial proceedings after a Navajo judge granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in 2020 that was aimed at halting operations at the farms in northwestern New Mexico.

David Jordan, an attorney who has represented Benally, said the interference charges were dismissed in December as those cases were set to go to trial.

“It very much feels like harassment,” he said of the latest legal maneuvering.

Jordan, who is expected to also represent Benally on the new charges, said Benally maintains he was growing hemp and declined to comment further.

No telephone listing was found for BlueEyes, and the tribe’s Department of Justice said no one has entered a formal appearance on behalf of him.

The marijuana operation near Shiprock began making headlines in 2020 when local police found Chinese immigrant workers trimming marijuana in motel rooms in a nearby community. Federal, state and tribal authorities then raided the farms and destroyed a quarter-million plants.

Just this week, New Mexico regulators rescinded Benally’s license for another growing operation in central New Mexico, saying Native American Agricultural Development Co. had committed numerous violations at a farm in Torrance County. Inspectors had found about 20,000 mature plants on the property — four times the number allowed under the license.

Numerous other violations also were outlined in the license revocation order issued by New Mexico’s Cannabis Control Division.

While state and federal authorities continue to investigate, no criminal charges have been filed in those jurisdictions.

On the Navajo Nation, President Buu Nygren said no one is above the law.

“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,” he said in a statement.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch on Thursday reiterated sentiments first relayed when the marijuana operation was uncovered, saying the residents of Shiprock deserved justice for the harm caused by the illegal activity.

A group of Chinese immigrant workers also are suing Benally and his associates. They claim they were lured to northern New Mexico and forced to work long hours trimming the marijuana produced at the farms on the Navajo Nation.

The lawsuit alleges that Benally, a former Navajo Nation presidential candidate who campaigned on growing hemp to boost the economy, turned a blind eye to federal and tribal laws that make it illegal to grow marijuana on the reservation. The complaint stated that he instructed his associates and the workers to refer to the marijuana as “hemp” to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.

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Navajo Nation charges 2 tribal members with illegally growing marijuana as part of complex case