A bizarre story involving armed Chinese immigrant labor, money from Nevada and illegal crops is unfolding on the Navajo Nation as tribal leaders attempt to shut down a hemp farm.
Near the end of September, District of Shiprock Judge Genevieve Woody granted a temporary restraining order against farms operated by Dineh Benally in partnership with a Las Vegas, Nev., dispensary that halted its operation in Shiprock.
This decision follows months of tension between tribal authorities and Benally. While hemp has been designated legal in the U.S., it’s still banned on tribal land. Although there are no penalties attached to the activity, tribal leaders can block a farmer from continuing to produce the plant. In June, Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul sued Benally for allegedly growing the illegal plants and giving out land use permits equaling around 400 acres to outside interests.
Locals came forward during the hearings to give testimony that they’d seen and smelled cannabis being produced on the farms. (Presumably they were unaware of the fact that cannabis and hemp look and smell identical because they are literally the same plant—not that it particularly matters in this instance since both are illegal on tribal lands.) Witnesses also testified that they’d seen armed guards patrolling the farms.
Both claims have reportedly been confirmed. The non-profit newsgroup Searchlight New Mexico recently published a piece that described armed guards in flak jackets protecting a security camera-monitored compound sporting “seven-foot-tall black fencing” to keep out prying eyes.
Inside the compound reporters said they found local children as young as 10 years-old working 10-hour days in the sun under the watchful eyes of armed Chinese managers along with an estimated 1,000 foreign workers brought in from California.
And as for the claims that Benally was growing black market cannabis—not just hemp—they turned out to be true, too. Los Angeles-based real estate agent Irving Lin—one of Benally’s primary business associates—admitted that “a few places” are growing cannabis. “Some people … might want to give it to their friend or something,” he told reporters, “or maybe they can sell it for a higher price.”
Black-market cannabis operations tied to Chinese drug-trafficking networks are apparently becoming a huge problem for rural areas of Colorado and New Mexico. In 2018 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raided a Chinese black-market cannabis operation in Cortez, Colo.—only 40 miles north of Shiprock. The feds arrested 42 people and seized more than 80,000 cannabis plants and 4,500 pounds of “finished marijuana products.” They also took 41 homes involved in the ring, 25 vehicles and more than $2 million in cash.
In a press release written at the time, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said, “Colorado has become the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the United States. It’s impacting communities, it’s impacting neighborhoods, and it’s impacting public safety. But this investigation may be just the tip of the iceberg. We will, therefore, continue to pursue black-market growers and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
In light of these facts, concerns about the Shiprock operation were strong enough that the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Navajo Nation Police and San Juan County Sheriff’s Office came together to investigate. But jurisdiction complications have kept agents from directly intervening in the operation.
Now the farms have been ordered to halt production in the area, and workers have been told to leave. Navajo Nation Police say they are trying to enforce the restraining order but are still finding farms attempting to continue the operation. Security teams that were hired by Benally have reportedly been allowed to continue patrolling the farms. It’s believed that many of the foreign workers that were employed there were unaware of the illegal nature of the operation.
Benally is president of the San Juan River Farm Board and is running for reelection in November.
Read more at Searchlight New Mexico
Governor Backs Weed For Funding
Michelle Lujan-Grisham has once again pointed out that New Mexico’s COVID-related financial troubles would probably have been much less harmful had legislators legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico.
While discussing the need for federal assistance to state and local governments during a coronavirus update in September, Lujan Grisham said, “I have no doubt we’re going to have to look for innovative ways to increase economic activity, and—I’ll make a plug—recreational cannabis is one of those areas where that’s $100 million. And it doesn’t fix it, but it plugs one of those holes—potentially would be enough to do a whole lot in the Medicaid gaps.” The $100 million estimate comes from a report made by the governor’s cannabis working group.
Earlier this year a bill that would have legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico—a bill Lujan- Grisham had been pushing for—failed to lift off. She vowed to see it passed the next time around and hasn’t stopped reminding us ever since.
Ultra Health Sues State Over Reciprocity Rules
New Mexico Top Organics Ultra Health is once again suing the New Mexico Department of Health. This time the company is alleging that the state’s recent rule change around patient reciprocity was against state law.
The state’s reciprocity rules only kicked in recently. According to the new rules, patients enrolled in another state’s medical cannabis program are allowed to take part in New Mexico’s program as long as they have proof of enrollment.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the suit claims that a new rule change requires patients to produce an ID card from another state’s medical cannabis program (even though many programs don’t issue cards) to prove their enrollment and requires a patient to have a government-issued ID from the same jurisdiction that issued the medical cannabis card. The new rules also bar New Mexico residents from using their enrollment in other medical cannabis programs to gain admission into New Mexico’s program. (Someone from Texas can’t use their Colorado card to buy marijuana in New Mexico.)
The Department of Health reportedly began implementing the new rules without notice on Sept. 11.