In a historic move, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana on their 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary reservation in North Carolina. The referendum, held on September 7, 2023, saw 2,464 votes in favor and 1,057 against. The vote is not technically binding. But Tribal Council Chairman Richard French indicated that the council intends to honor the results while developing legislation to regulate recreational cannabis use within the reservation’s borders.
North Carolina state law still criminalizes the possession of any amount of marijuana. However, the tribe’s sovereign status allows it to regulate cannabis independently. The tribe had previously decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis in May 2021, making their reservation the only area in the state where marijuana possession is legal. That same year, they legalized medical marijuana and have almost completed the setup of a tribal-owned dispensary, expected to open later this fall.
This significant step by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians comes amid broader political resistance to cannabis legalization. Chuck Edwards, U.S. Congressman for North Carolina’s 11th District, recently introduced legislation to withhold federal funding from states and tribes that permit recreational marijuana use. Nonetheless, supporters say this recent move into the cannabis industry is a potentially lucrative decision for the tribe.
Opponents of the Tribe’s Legalization Plans
While most of the tribe voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana on their reservation, not everyone was on board. Principal Chief Richard Sneed, an advocate for medicinal marijuana since 2017, expressed concerns about the tribe moving too quickly. He argues that the tribe should first gain experience in running a dispensary under a medical program before diving into recreational sales. “I feel like we’re putting the cart before the horse,” Sneed stated.
French also voiced uncertainty about the level of tribal support for recreational cannabis despite widespread acceptance of its medicinal use among tribal citizens.
Furthermore, U.S. Rep. Edwards, a Republican whose district includes the Qualla Boundary, introduced the Stop Pot Act just days before the tribe’s vote. This legislation aims to withhold ten percent of federal funding from tribal nations that legalize recreational marijuana. Edwards explicitly cited concerns over the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ legalization vote in his decision to introduce the bill.
In a column for the tribe’s newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather, Edwards urged the tribe to reject the legalization of recreational marijuana. He warned of inevitable criminal activity and expressed hope that the referendum would be defeated for the sake of community safety and the “mountain way of life.”
Legalization Efforts in Other States and Tribes
As the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians take steps toward cannabis legalization, they join an evolving landscape of states and tribes embracing the burgeoning industry. A recent Meredith College survey indicated that 73 percent of registered voters in North Carolina support medical marijuana legalization. In spite of overwhelming public support, a medical legalization bill has stalled in the state House and is unlikely to be heard until next year.
Kevin Caldwell, southeast legislative manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, praised the tribe for filling a void left by the state’s inertia. The Marijuana Policy Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to the legalization of cannabis. Caldwell remarked that the state is neglecting tax revenue from a currently illicit market worth an estimated $3 billion.
Nationally, 38 states have legalized medical marijuana. Twenty-three of those allow recreational use. The Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota was the first tribal nation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in a state where it remains illegal. Other tribes, like the Suquamish Tribe and the Las Vegas Paiutes, have also operated their own dispensaries for years.
Principal Chief Sneed, while cautioning against moving too fast on recreational cannabis, acknowledges the economic potential of being the only legal seller in North Carolina. Sneed highlighted the urgency for tribes to diversify their revenue streams, rather than relying so heavily on casino incomes, especially as some states move into sports betting.
What This Vote Could Mean for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
The decision to move forward with the legalization of recreational marijuana offers numerous potential economic and social benefits for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Forrest Parker, general manager of the tribe’s cannabis business, Qualla Enterprises, envisions this venture as an opportunity to provide hundreds of jobs for the tribe’s more than 16,000 members.
The tribe is handling all aspects of the business in-house, from operating 75 indoor grow facilities to preparing for the opening of a dispensary. Qualla Enterprises estimates a need to produce 40,000 pounds of marijuana a year for medicinal use and twice that amount if recreational use is approved.
Local business owners, like Amy Riesco of Happy Holiday RV Village, also welcome the benefits of legalization, expecting it will boost tax revenue for the local area. She specifically mentioned that her village has pizza and wings, both foods that are tried-and-true remedies for the “munchies.”
Former Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who was recently re-elected, emphasized that clear regulatory frameworks are necessary. Hicks outlined the importance of considerations like consumption zones, especially away from schools, and the allocation of revenue for tribal services like housing, healthcare, and education. He specifically mentioned elderly dental care as an area that could benefit from the additional funding cannabis sales could bring.
As Hicks and new Tribal Council members take their seats, Hicks believes setting the right controls for financial and operational aspects of the cannabis industry will be a top priority. Hicks expressed his belief that the move into marijuana could be highly beneficial for the tribe if managed correctly.
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