Police agencies still investigating hemp farms on Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Police Department warns Shiprock residents there will be ongoing police activity in the area as law enforcement agencies continue investigating several farms suspected of growing marijuana.

The department posted the notices on its Facebook page on Nov. 10, a day after tribal, federal, regional and state agencies executed federal search warrants at locations in and near Shiprock.

"There will be no access to these locations during the investigation. There will be no access to these locations for several days and law enforcement presence will remain on site, 24 hours a day, until the investigation is completed," the post states.

The activity — designated Operation Navajo Gold in a Nov. 10 press release from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice — came months after the tribal government filed a civil lawsuit against Shiprock resident Dineh Benally and two of his businesses for allegedly issuing land use permits on the reservation to outside entities to grow hemp.

The Navajo Police Department and New Mexico State Police were among several law enforcement agencies that executed federal search warrants at hemp farms in the Shiprock area on Nov. 9.

According to the press release, after the Shiprock Judicial District court granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prohibit further growing activities, tribal government personnel were able to gain access to the farms and "discovered that a significant portion of the crop being grown appeared to be marijuana."

"It became apparent that a significant number of foreign workers had been employed by these operations with significant financial investment," the release states.

Inspections and reviews of the farms by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency estimates growing activities expanded to more than 1,000 greenhouses on more than 400 acres of land. In many instances, the farms may have violated environmental laws under the tribal and federal governments.

"The lands of the Navajo Nation belong to the Navajo people who depend on it for survival. The Navajo Nation EPA will continue to work to ensure the lands are safely and properly restored to their proper state following the abuse of these farming operations," Oliver Whaley, executive director of the tribe's EPA, said.

Several tribal, federal, local and state agencies executed federal search warrants at hemp farms located in the Shiprock area on Nov. 9.

The release adds that the tribe's police department, environmental protection agency and prosecutor's office will continue to enforce the district court order and other violations of tribal law while coordinating with federal personnel over potential violations of federal law.

"Here, both governments have substantial interests and responsibilities that must be addressed and the Navajo Nation is committed to continuing to work in close coordination with our federal partners while aggressively pursuing justice in the courts of the Navajo Nation," Attorney General Doreen McPaul said.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul speaks to community members on Oct. 30 about legal actions the tribe has taken against hemp farms in the Shiprock area.

The release explains that the farms came to the attention of the Navajo Police Department and the tribe's justice department after community members raised concerns about "rapidly growing 'hemp' farming operations" lead by Benally, who is president of the San Juan River Farm Board.

Benally sought re-election this year to represent Shiprock Chapter on the farm board but lost. The unofficial results from the Nov. 3 general election show Benally finished third out of three candidates seeking the office.

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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