The Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., has been embroiled in a complex and controversial case involving two of its members who allegedly operated a massive marijuana growing operation in and around Shiprock, New Mexico.
The case, which is ongoing, raises legal, ethical, and cultural questions about the status and sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, the rights and responsibilities of its members, and the impact of the marijuana industry on the environment and the community.
Here are seven key insights into the legal odyssey of Dineh Benally and Farley BlueEyes, the two men accused of illegally growing marijuana on the Navajo Nation:
The marijuana operation was uncovered in 2020, when local police found Chinese immigrant workers trimming marijuana in motel rooms.
According to AP News, the workers were allegedly brought to the U.S. by Benally and BlueEyes, who promised them jobs and visas, but instead exploited them as cheap labor for their marijuana farms. The workers reportedly lived in squalid conditions, worked long hours without proper equipment or protection, and faced threats and violence from their employers. Federal, state, and tribal authorities raided the farms and destroyed a quarter-million plants in 2020.
Benally and BlueEyes claimed they were growing hemp, not marijuana, and that they had the authority to do so under the 2018 Farm Bill and the Navajo Nation’s own hemp pilot program.
Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis plant, but hemp has a lower concentration of THC, the psychoactive compound that produces a high. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production in the U.S., but required states and tribes to submit their plans for regulating and licensing hemp growers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Navajo Nation launched its hemp pilot program in 2019, but it was not approved by the USDA until 2020. Benally and BlueEyes argued that they were growing hemp under the Navajo Nation’s program, and that they had obtained permits from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), a tribal enterprise that oversees the land where the farms were located.
The Navajo Nation disputed Benally and BlueEyes’ claims, and asserted that they were violating tribal law and harming the community.
The Navajo Nation Office of the Prosecutor filed criminal charges against Benally and BlueEyes in 2020 and 2024, accusing them of illegally growing marijuana for distribution in violation of the Navajo Nation Controlled Substances Act. The Navajo Nation also obtained a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction from a tribal court in 2020, ordering Benally and BlueEyes to cease their operations and remove all the plants and equipment from the farms.
The Navajo Nation alleged that Benally and BlueEyes were growing marijuana, not hemp, and that they did not have valid permits from NAPI or the tribe. The authorities also claimed that the marijuana operation was causing environmental damage, public health risks, and social problems for the residents of Shiprock and the surrounding areas.
Benally and BlueEyes challenged the Navajo Nation’s jurisdiction and authority over their farms, and appealed to the federal court for relief.
Benally and BlueEyes filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in 2020, seeking to stop the Navajo Nation from enforcing its injunction and destroying their crops. They argued that the Navajo Nation did not have jurisdiction over their farms, because they were located on fee land, which is land within the reservation that is owned by non-Indians or Indians of other tribes. They also argued that the Navajo Nation did not have authority to regulate hemp production, because it was preempted by federal law. They claimed that they were protected by the 2018 Farm Bill and the Navajo Nation’s hemp pilot program, and that they had a right to grow hemp as a form of economic development and self-determination.
The federal court dismissed Benally and BlueEyes’ lawsuit, and affirmed the Navajo Nation’s jurisdiction and authority over their farms.
The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation in 2020, and dismissed Benally and BlueEyes’ lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court held that the Navajo Nation had jurisdiction over the farms, because they were located on trust land, which is land within the reservation that is held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of the tribe or individual Indians. The court also held that the Navajo Nation had authority to regulate hemp production, because it was not preempted by federal law. The court found that Benally and BlueEyes were not protected by the 2018 Farm Bill or the Navajo Nation’s hemp pilot program, because they did not comply with the requirements and regulations of either law. The court concluded that Benally and BlueEyes had no right to grow hemp or marijuana on the Navajo Nation, and that the tribe had a legitimate interest in protecting its land, resources, and people from the harms caused by their operation.
Benally and BlueEyes continued to grow marijuana on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere, despite the legal actions taken against them.
According to the Navajo Nation Office of the Prosecutor, Benally and BlueEyes did not comply with the tribal court’s injunction and continued to grow marijuana on the land in question in 2020 and 2021. The Navajo Nation Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted another raid in 2021, seizing more than 260,000 plants and 60,000 pounds of processed marijuana from the farms. Benally and BlueEyes also expanded their operation to other locations in New Mexico, such as Torrance County, where they obtained a license from the state to grow hemp in 2020. However, the state regulators revoked their license in 2024 after finding that they were growing marijuana, not hemp, and that they had committed numerous violations of the state’s cannabis laws.
The Navajo Nation vowed to hold Benally and BlueEyes accountable for their actions, and to protect the tribe and its people from any harm.
The Office of the Prosecutor announced new criminal charges against Benally and BlueEyes in 2024, alleging that they had illegally grown marijuana for distribution, in violation of the Navajo Nation Controlled Substances Act. The two men were expected to be arraigned on the charges later this month. Navajo Nation President, Buu Nygren, issued a warning, saying “Anyone coming into our communities who seeks to harm the (Navajo) Nation or our Navajo people will be held accountable under my administration, no matter who they are.”
The Navajo Nation Attorney General, Ethel Branch, also issued a statement in 2024, saying that the residents of Shiprock deserved justice for the harm caused by the illegal activity, and that prosecutors would continue to pursue all legal remedies to stop the marijuana operation and restore the balance and harmony of the land and the community.
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