Residents force leadership’s attention to hemp controversy
San Juan County Farm Board President Dineh Benally’s hemp greenhouse production went undetected by Navajo leadership and now, with community pressure for leadership to get involved, a discussion has finally started.
“This has been taken in the hands of the community,” said Kyle Jim during a July 31st protest held in Shiprock against Benally and his non-Navajo employees who work in his hemp farms. “We have no official government representative standing and walking with us. I want to make that apparent.”
After this protest, the Navajo Nation Council held two radio forums to answer questions and inform the public what is happening, to the best of their knowledge. But most questions could be answered only by executive branch individuals who, for the most part, weren’t available.
“This second forum for hemp is continuing and hopefully we get a better participation from our partners in the future,” said Seth Damon, speaker of the Council during the forum. “But we are here and (that) shows the Navajo Nation Council is continuing to work toward getting solutions … and it comes in form of legislation.”
In June, the Central Consolidated School District was concerned about hemp growth within the community of Shiprock and its close proximity to the school. They had questioned Navajo leaders about zoning matters, but they did not receive much of an answer.
During an Aug. 18 school board meeting, Resource and Development Committee Chair Rickie Nez said he is sponsoring a bill regarding hemp.
“As far as zoning and restrictions are concerned, I believe chapters can pass resolutions to put on this hemp to reaffirm that it’s prohibited, that it’s illegal,” Nez said. “Chapters can do that, to join the fight. Currently I am proposing a legislation that will reaffirm that hemp is illegal and that it will become criminal.”
Nez brought up his previous legislation which made hemp testing and growing legal only on Navajo Agricultural Products Industry lands in a trial conducted by New Mexico State University.
He said when President Jonathan Nez signed a recent bill expanding this hemp pilot project from 200 square feet to five acres, President Nez said the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp is still unauthorized and can place a Navajo farm permit in jeopardy.
Law and Order Committee Chair Eugenia Newton, the delegate from Shiprock, who was against the hemp pilot project from the beginning, said during the radio forum the pilot project confused people and said she wanted to ask the Navajo Department of Justice if it’s even legal.
Whether Navajo DOJ states the hemp pilot project at NAPI is legal or not, the hoops that NMSU had to go through with the Council and chapter are far more than Benally ever had to do for his hemp farms.
“The mission of the NMSU ASC-Farmington is to conduct research, demonstration, and educational programs that will best fill the needs of the agricultural community of San Juan County and the Navajo Nation in particular, and the state of New Mexico, Four Corners Region, and Nation in general,” said Steven Lorin, associate director for the agricultural experiment station system for NMSU.
“The overall objective of crop research is to assist farmers to make informed decisions based on objective science-based evaluations,” he said.
Leo Watchman, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, said if the Navajo Nation were to provide rules and regulations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it could act as a licensing agency to anyone wanting to grow hemp on tribal lands.
Instead the San Juan County Farm Board misrepresented itself and claimed it was given authorization to write rules and regulations for the federal agency, of which the USDA informed the Navajo Nation.
“The farm board wasn’t given authorization to provide such an application. It needs to go back to the Navajo Nation,” said Watchman. “They didn’t follow what is prescribed in Navajo Nation law of going through its process.
“If they had the authorization it would be legal,” he said, “however, they did not gain authorization from the Navajo Nation Council or resource committee so it’s been illegal in the Department of Agriculture’s standpoint.”
In two months, Benally’s hemp greenhouses went from being tolerated to the community demanding the removal of local leadership for what they considered turning a blind eye and even being in cahoots with Benally.
In June, the hemp greenhouses came to the forefront after the Navajo Nation Police sent out a press release informing the public they are aware of the hemp production happening in the community because of reports made to them by residents.
A few days later, the Navajo DOJ sent out its own press release stating it had filed a lawsuit in Shiprock District Court against Benally and the two companies he named Navajo Gold and Native American Agriculture Company.
“As we investigated this hemp issue we found out it was in violation of rules and regulations, not an actual criminal law,” said Police Chief Phillip Francisco. “Criminal law that may have been broken is the probability of growing marijuana, but because we can’t verify that it’s marijuana we don’t have a basis to charge illegal growth of marijuana or possession of marijuana.
“Everything else is a civil violation. There is no regulation, no law, no taxation, no committees allowing this that are valid,” he said. “Hemp alone isn’t a criminal violation.”
In the meantime, the Navajo Police are investigating and taking complaints of violations of curfew, illegal workers, trespassing, harassment, alcohol use and speeding because these fall into the criminal category.
Regarding testing the plants to see whether they exceed legal THC levels for hemp, Francisco said those tests have come back inconclusive. There aren’t any labs to measure THC levels, which can be used in court, and this is a national issue.
Last week, Benally had a hearing in district court to dismiss the Navajo Nation’s case against him but the Shiprock court gave 10 days for Benally and the Navajo Nation to issue briefs on the issue of whether or not the court has jurisdiction. These briefs are due on Thursday and the court will reschedule a hearing.