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Fined and stripped of his marijuana license, Dineh Benally keeps on growing

A March 6 drone photo of Dineh Benally’s marijuana farm near Estancia, about 60 miles southeast of Albuquerque. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico
Navajo cannabis farmer claims he’s providing ‘sacrament’ for a Native church

Three months ago, New Mexico issued a $1 million fine to embattled Navajo marijuana grower Dineh Benally and – citing him for “egregious” violations – ordered him to shut down his Torrance County cannabis farm. Benally has done anything but.

Instead of closing up shop, he has expanded his operation along a rural highway near Estancia. In a March 21 phone interview, Benally alluded to a sovereign right to grow cannabis, which he says is a religious sacrament for Native people.

“This is an ancestral plant,” Benally said. “This plant belongs to us as Native people. We as Native Americans, when we’re born, we’re entitled to this land … Anything that grows, that belongs to the Native American.”

This is not the first time Benally’s marijuana ventures have sparked controversy and legal issues, from criminal indictments and a civil suit to community outrage. In 2020, he helped orchestrate a massive illegal marijuana operation on the Navajo Nation that employed more than 1,000 Chinese immigrant laborers – until it was shut down by a raid that netted nearly $2 billion in plants. In the wake of the Shiprock bust, criminal actions were filed against Benally and federal authorities said they launched investigations into human trafficking.

In 2022, Benally received a state license to grow cannabis on acreage south of Estancia, where other problems ensued. The New Mexico Licensing and Regulation Department’s Cannabis Control Division revoked his permit on Dec. 23 and issued him one of the largest fines in its history, charging that his farm was operating in “blatant disregard for public health and safety, and for the rule of law.”

Inspectors found uncontrolled pest infestations, a near-total lack of quality controls and none of the required systems to prevent plants from being sold on the black market. Most notably, they reported that he was growing some 20,000 mature marijuana plants – four times the volume his license allowed.

In the interview with Searchlight New Mexico, Benally waved off the violations. “We have our rights, we have our religion, we have our sacraments,” he said. He protested being treated “like I’m violating people’s rights and I’m violating a law – a law that is man-made, a law that is corrupt and a law that is discriminating.”

Benally said he is undertaking the Estancia venture in partnership with the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), led by James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, a controversial figure whose claims about being a Native American have long been questioned. According to court filings, Mooney is not a registered member of a federally recognized tribe.

Yet Mooney has persisted in his claims – both for himself and for Benally, who Mooney has named as leader of the ONAC for the Navajo.

“He (Benally) doesn’t need to be registered with the state,” Mooney told Searchlight. “New Mexico thinks they want to register and organize and supervise the development of our sacrament? That ain’t gonna happen. We don’t need the state’s registration. We’re a sovereign nation.”

Mooney said Benally’s farm is supplying ONAC members across the country and “all around the fricking world.”

When asked how much cannabis was being exported, Mooney replied: “As much as we can raise.”

Transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime.

A worker closes the front gate at Dineh Benally’s farm south of Estancia after confirming that he works there. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico
Growing concerns

Today, Benally’s operation in Torrance County is bigger than ever. Semi-trucks pull in and out of the gated entrance off Highway 41 as workers erect new greenhouses – at least 25 of which have been built in recent months, a review of drone footage shows. In total, roughly 180 large greenhouses sit in plain view beside the county road, the skunky smell of marijuana wafting over the adjacent farmland. Neighbors who share a nearby house have had to stop using their cooling system to keep the smell from invading.

“They just keep building and building more greenhouses, said David Crosby, whose property lies near Benally’s farm. At this rate, Crosby said, “They’ll be able to supply the entire nation with pot. There must be no way to regulate or control this mess.”

State regulators dismissed Benally’s claims of sovereignty and religious rights.

“The Cannabis Control Division respectfully disagrees with Mr. Benally’s assessment of the situation,” general counsel Robert Sachs said in an email. “There are certain substances that are permitted for use in bona fide religious ceremonies” as a result of court decisions. But “cannabis is not one of them,” he said. “The CCD stands by its decision to revoke this business’s license and will continue working with law enforcement to stop this unlicensed, illegal activity.”

For three months, however, there has been no law enforcement action to shut down the property. Such action requires a referral to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, Sachs said. No such referral was made until March 19, after inquiries from Searchlight.

The case comes amid a larger national struggle with marijuana farms, where criminal enterprises have exploited state cannabis laws to grow weed for the lucrative black market. Since 2020, when a Searchlight investigation uncovered Chinese managers and alleged human trafficking in Shiprock, illegal activity on U.S. marijuana farms has spiked from Maine and Oklahoma to California, news reports and lawmakers say. Chinese organized crime is dominating America’s illicit marijuana market, often using Chinese immigrants as forced labor, a ProPublica investigation found.

From bust to boom

Benally first arrived in the Estancia area after applying for and receiving a cannabis cultivation license from the state in October 2022. It was a moment of success after a string of failures in his marijuana ambitions: Two years earlier, a coalition of federal, state and local law enforcement officers had raided the marijuana farms he’d organized near Shiprock. The raid, dubbed Operation Navajo Gold, netted 30 tons of illegal marijuana – the largest bust of its kind in New Mexico history and the second-largest in the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

After the raid, Benally disappeared from the Navajo Nation, evading police efforts to serve him with papers. He resurfaced months later in South Dakota, where he tried to set up a cannabis venture on the Pine Ridge reservation, until the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council barred him from doing business in January 2021.

A few months later, a new opportunity opened up in New Mexico: The state had legalized recreational marijuana and would be accepting applications for cannabis cultivation licenses by year’s end.

“Not only are we launching a burgeoning industry that will strengthen our economy,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said after signing the legalization bill into law, “but we are doing so in an equitable way that will curb the illicit market and undo some damage of the failed war on drugs.”

A sign at Dineh Benally’s family home on the Navajo Nation in 2020, in support of hemp. At the time, Benally had helped organize what he called hemp farms on the reservation. The farms were actually growing marijuana. Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico
Sweets and $500 cognac

After getting the 2022 license to grow cannabis in Estancia, Benally paid a visit to Torrance County Sheriff David Frazee.

“He was a real nice guy,” Frazee said, recalling how Benally thanked him for his work and handed him a box of fancy chocolates and a $500 bottle of cognac. (Frazee says he doesn’t drink and the bottle was never opened.)

State regulators never told the sheriff’s office that they had revoked Benally’s license and that his farm was now illegal, Frazee added. In March, when Searchlight informed him about the action, the news took him by surprise. “You’re telling me for the first time” that the state had shut the farm down, he said, miffed. “I guess we’re not trustworthy enough to know.

“If the state has got a problem with them, why didn’t they let us know?” he added. “We can help keep an eye on it since it’s our neighborhood. If I’m aware that they’re violating any laws, we’ll be more than happy to take action and do whatever we need to do.”

Sheriff David Frazee in his Estancia office. “I put many people in jail for possessing a marijuana cigarette,” he says, “and now all of a sudden it’s legal, and everybody can do whatever the hell they want.” Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico
Assurances to land owner

After his license was revoked in December, Benally contacted an owner of the farmland he’d leased and offered an assurance that the state could not shut him down.

He explained that “because he’s a Native American, they couldn’t do it,” said Jerry Landgraff, an Albuquerque resident who co-owns the property.

By that time, Benally had joined forces with Mooney of the ONAC, an organization that offers membership for a fee and has generated criticism and lawsuits around the country. Detractors say the ONAC has given people the mistaken impression that having a church membership card allowed them to possess marijuana, peyote and other controlled substances without fear of prosecution.

Mooney told Searchlight the goal with Benally is to give thousands of people access to the sacrament of cannabis. He said the ONAC – with Mooney as an overseer – is compensating Benally for his efforts. “He is supplying the entire church,” he reiterated.

Neither Mooney nor Benally would answer specific questions about how much cannabis was being shipped out of New Mexico and how much money was spent and earned in the enterprise.

Sacrament or sacrilege?

The notion that marijuana is a Native American sacrament has been decried by the actual Native American Church – a large faith organization that considers peyote to be sacred and consists of tribal affiliates across the United States and Mexico. Mooney’s Oklevueha Native American Church, by comparison, is largely populated by non-Natives, a Harper’s Magazine investigation found.

In 2016, the National Council of Native American Churches issued a scathing statement charging that Mooney’s church and similar groups were “appropriating the Native American Church name” and falsely claiming that marijuana held religious value.

Peyote is the church’s sacrament, the statement read. “We reject and condemn any claim by these illegitimate organizations that marijuana or any other plant serves or has ever served as a sacrament in Indigenous Native American Church ceremonies.”

Legal issues and a due date

In Benally’s case, legal actions are a mounting problem. In January 2024, Navajo prosecutors filed criminal charges against him and another Navajo farm manager for allegedly operating a “massive, high-grade marijuana operation” in the Shiprock area. Last September, 15 Chinese immigrants filed a civil suit against Benally and others in New Mexico state court, alleging that he and his associates lured them to Shiprock under false pretenses and engaged in human trafficking and exploitation. In addition, Benally owes the $1 million fine, which was due by March 25 but to date has not been paid, a Regulation and Licensing Department official said.

Cannabis Control Division inspectors, for their part, have driven to Benally’s grow site near Estancia to conduct follow-up visits since revoking his license. But they were unable to get past the farm’s locked gate, according to Sachs, the CCD’s lead counsel.

“I understand that unlicensed cannabis is still moving from that facility,” Sachs said. But there’s an enforcement wrinkle: “Technically, if that place is no longer licensed, then, you know, our authority to be on that premise is not as strong.” Police assistance might be needed to shut down the farm, he explained. “We are looking into follow-up inspections and then engaging [law enforcement] because it’s such a large-scale operation now in the criminal area.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.