The Navajo Nation has overturned a 2014 decision to ban the transportation and manufacture of marijuana oil on tribal lands, prompting controversy and litigation.

The High Desert Health District and the Navajo Health Commission on Wednesday agreed to move forward with some of the proceedings requested by plaintiffs in a lawsuit involving eight hemp farms operating on the tribe’s remote northern reservation.

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The controversy has raised questions about how tribal authorities handle private health care services and veterans’ diseases.

Last year, on orders from The Confederated Tribes of the United States to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Navajos voluntarily eliminated medicinal marijuana from health care and property holdings that aren’t connected to state government.

First approved by Congress in 2014, in part to ease shortages of a potentially deadly form of epilepsy, hemp oil or cannabidiol has never been approved for medical use as an alternative to traditional marijuana. But Navajos still claim it is useful in treating ailments of nausea, glaucoma, cancer, chemotherapy and other ailments.

The medical marijuana growers on the Navajo are among eight authorized by The Confederated Tribes of the United States to cultivate and process hemp oil for the use in veterans’ illnesses and their survivors.

But five others were banned and disqualified from participating in federal programs including the Border Patrol, Community Health Centers and military medicine. Tribal claims have been denied for the nine farmers whose hemp oil was successfully treated for symptoms of glaucoma, as well as for afflicting veterans at one Navajo hospital with nausea.


Navajo Health Commissioner Bob Frederick said she asked tribal physicians and tribal Health Commission officials to reduce the number of patients suffering from glaucoma using the hemp oil to two a month and set up a program for veterans with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, known as xenoglycol.

Of the Navajoians suing the tribe over the ban, nearly one in 10 is said to have been diagnosed with cancer from hemp oil. But the agency doesn’t know the exact number of Navajo patients taking the drug, only that their disease has been worsened by the ban, Frederick said.

“It is egregious and offensive that they are taking a bullet in the back for small-scale farmers who are gaining resources to provide physicians with the information they need,” said Wenona River Tribe member Tori Scrivener, whose granddaughter, Mary, began smoking hemp oil after a second glaucoma operation.

In court Wednesday, Navajo Nation Judge Ted Wainwright said the Native Americans’ rights and access to limited medicine have been violated.

Wainwright argued that the ban harms chronic illnesses, places expensive training and research at risk, and strips taxpayers of their money and statutory protections.

Palliance attorneys Tom Dyck and Gail Rice challenged the significance of the settlement.

“The decision has to be read more as a precedent for people who have been discriminated against than a relief,” Rice said.

Attorney Bryan Jones, who is representing the eight plaintiffs, asked Wainwright to dismiss the case on an unrelated issue at stake in the lawsuit. Jones objected to an apparent carve-out, saying it would allow a tribal entity to selectively terminate “small-scale farmers,” potentially eliminating legal protections.


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