Navajo Nation accuses farmers of illegally growing hemp

Associated Press
Greenhouses are pictures on Sept. 23 at a hemp farm on Mesa Farm Road in Shiprock, N.M. The Navajo Police Department continues to enforce a court order to stop the cultivation of the plant.

SHIPROCK, N.M. – A team of federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officers on Monday served search warrants on the Navajo Nation near Shiprock, where the tribe has been cracking down on illegal hemp farm operations. 

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said the warrants were sealed and he could not provide any details. He said only that the warrants stemmed from an ongoing investigation. 

Navajo President Jonathan Nez tweeted Monday that tribal police were assisting in a multiagency operation and that there was no threat to the community. He said more information would be released later.

In October, more than a dozen people were arrested on drug charges at a motel in the area. Authorities alleged the suspects were trimming marijuana plants in multiple motel rooms as marijuana was being stored in other rooms. Investigators were trying to determine whether the suspects were tied to the hemp operations.

The Navajo Nation just weeks ago sued nearly three dozen people, accusing them of illegally growing hemp or marijuana on the reservation. The lawsuit claims that the operations are contaminating the tribe's water, land and other natural resources. It was the second such lawsuit the tribe's Department of Justice has filed this year. 

In June, the department sued Dineh Benally, a former Navajo presidential candidate who campaigned on the creation of widespread hemp farming on the reservation. The tribal court recently granted a request to keep Benally from growing or cultivating hemp, at least temporarily, while attorneys argue over the merits of the case.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul said despite the injunction, individual farmers around Shiprock are still growing, harvesting and transporting hemp or marijuana.

"These individuals have substantially injured the community and the (Navajo) Nation, as a whole, by illegally drilling wells to water their hemp and marijuana plants, by illegally dumping and burying solid waste, by carelessly storing and applying hazardous pesticides on their lands, and installing ill-constructed septic tanks that are leaking sewage into our lands and groundwater," she said in a statement.

Benally has argued that he had approval through the San Juan Regional Farm Board to grow hemp and that it wasn't banned when he started. The court rejected those claims when considering a request from Benally to dismiss the case. He also argued that the farm board has authority to hear disputes over farming in the region. Benally is the board president.

The tribe does not have a regulatory system for industrial hemp on the vast reservation that spans parts of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. The only authorized hemp operation is a pilot project between the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry and New Mexico State University.

The Navajo Nation Council recently refined the law regarding marijuana possession, distribution or transportation, and expanded the penalties.