Noel Lyn Smith, Farmington Daily Times
Published 1:39 p.m. MT Oct. 8, 2020

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Amendment clarifies legal definition of pot

Story Highlights

  • The measure prohibits the possession, manufacturing, transportation, selling, usage, trading or delivery of the plant on the Navajo Nation.
  • An exception was made for hemp, which comes from the same species of plant but has no psychoactive effects.
  • Officials also strengthened the punishment for violating the law by enacting the civil forfeiture of property, including leases and permits.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation officials have updated the tribe’s criminal policy for marijuana and the penalties for instances in which individuals are convicted of offenses involving the plant.

The amendment clarifies the legal definition for marijuana by labeling it a product of the plant Cannabis sativa L. and prohibiting the possession, manufacturing, transportation, selling, usage, trading or delivery of the plant on the Navajo Nation.

However, an exception was made for hemp, which comes from the same species of plant but has no psychoactive effects, and its production, which only would be allowed after a regulatory system is approved by the Navajo Nation Council.

Officials also strengthened the punishment for violating the law by enacting the civil forfeiture of property, including leases and permits.

If the person found guilty is a tribal official, he or she would forfeit the right to hold office, or current or future employment with the tribe.

The Navajo Nation Council approved the bill by a 16-5 vote on Sept. 24. It was signed into law on Oct. 5 by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

“As a sovereign nation, we have the ability to discipline those who commit crimes, and we must continue to support our law enforcement them with the tools to protect our communities,” Nez, along with Vice President Myron Lizer, wrote in a letter about supporting the measure to Speaker Seth Damon.

Nez and Lizer wrote that changes to law are “often born out of necessity.”

“The need to clarify what is a criminal offense involving marijuana helps law enforcement protect our communities. The resolution also provides a future of economic development with industrial hemp production on terms approved by the Navajo Nation Council and Navajo president,” the letter states.

Nez said in a press release that the approval sends “a clear message” to people that they will be held accountable for their actions.

“We will continue to stand up for our communities against those who attempt to circumvent and manipulate our laws,” Nez said in a statement from his office.

The issue of hemp production came into focus this year after several farms in and near Shiprock started growing the plant, causing the tribe’s Department of Justice to file a civil lawsuit against Dineh Benally.

The tribe alleges Benally and two companies he operates were illegally issuing land-use permits on tribal land for foreign entities to grow hemp.

The president’s office did not respond to a question about whether the changes in law were due to the farms. But in the Sept. 24 presentation to the tribal council, Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton explained the legislation was “a result of the issue we are facing here in Northern Agency.”

Charles-Newton, who co-sponsored the bill with Delegates Rick Nez and Wilson Stewart Jr., explained the bill was not targeted at a specific individual but was intended to strengthen the law so such activities do not occur again.

The tribe’s attorney general, Doreen McPaul, told delegates that the legislation would not impact the lawsuit against Benally.

During the same council session, Dana Bobroff, lead attorney for the council, explained that the bill had no effect on the study on hemp by New Mexico State University and Navajo Agricultural Products Industry.

That study is examining the possibility of industrial hemp production on the Navajo Nation.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at [email protected]

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