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Shiprock court denies motion to dismiss hemp farm case

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Shiprock Judicial District court denied a motion by Dineh Benally to dismiss the complaint filed by the Navajo Nation over allegations that Benally is operating hemp farms in the Shiprock area.

Judge Genevieve Woody made the decision on Sept. 10, almost three months since the tribe's Department of Justice filed the complaint against Benally and his businesses, Native American Agricultural Company and the Navajo Gold Company, over claims of growing and marketing industrial hemp on the reservation.

The parties also faced allegations that they are unlawfully issuing land permits to foreign entities to grow and cultivate hemp, a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species that contains lower concentration of THC, which is the active ingredient of cannabis.

The department argued in the June 12 complaint that such activities are illegal on tribal land.

Benally, who is president of the Navajo Nation San Juan River Farm Board, filed a motion on July 6 to dismiss the tribe's complaint and a court hearing was held on Aug. 10.

His motion contained four arguments, including that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the case.

Benally cited a section of the Navajo Nation Code, stating that a farm board has the authority to mediate agricultural related disputes while the court handles disputes involving divorce, separation and probate.

The court denied Benally's claim because the powers of farm boards was amended in December 2014 by the Navajo Nation Council and he did not prove his argument.

Dineh Benally

"Navajo Nation laws must be read comprehensively and in combination, not piñon picked for provisions that support a given position," the court order states.

David Jordan, Benally's attorney, expressed disappointment in the court's ruling to dismiss the motion.

"This isn't our only defense in this case. It was, in my mind, a significant argument to make because I do think the law assigns these issues to the farm board, and on appeal to the Office of Hearings and Appeals, but the court disagreed," Jordan said in a Sept. 11 telephone interview.

He added that they are not sure if they will file a writ of prohibition to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court or continue litigation in district court.

The court order did not include a decision over the tribe's request to temporarily stop the hemp farm activities and for the preliminary injunction.

However, the document states that a hearing for the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction will be scheduled.

Attorney General Doreen McPaul and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez commended the court decision in a Sept. 10 press release.

"While the court's ruling is favorable to the nation, it comes one month after the hearing on this matter which means one additional month of illegal hemp cultivation by the defendants. Any delay is ultimately a win for Dineh Benally to continue his illegal hemp operation," McPaul said.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Attorney General Doreen McPaul and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Oliver Whaley met with farmers on Sept. 3 in Shiprock.

"The Navajo Nation will continue to request the courts to hold Dineh Benally and his associates accountable for their actions," Nez said.

The attorney general and the president were part of a group that met with concerned residents last week in Shiprock.

According to a Sept. 3 press release from Nez's office, residents expressed concerns over the hemp farms' use of the San Juan River, the safety of community members and the contamination of soil and water by chemicals and pesticides used at the farms in addition to questions about farming permits.

The hemp farms have also been discussed in meetings by the tribal council and in radio forums organized by the Office of the Speaker.

The president's office press release noted that in 2018, the council amended the tribal code to broaden the definition of marijuana and that industrial hemp was not permitted on the reservation until a regulatory system is created and permits obtained.

"The nation has been diligently studying the impacts through the only legally authorized exception for a pilot research project operated by the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in compliance with federal law. The Navajo Nation Council has never authorized any commercial production and distribution of hemp," the release states.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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