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Eastern Band of Cherokee voters pave way for Qualla Boundary to be first place in North Carolina for legal recreational marijuana purchase


Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee voted more than 2:1 to support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis by people 21 or older, opening the way for North Carolina’s first legal purchase of marijuana for recreational use.

More than 2,400 people voted in favor of the referendum to support legalization and require Tribal Council to develop regulations for the market, according to the unofficial count from the Eastern Band of Cherokee(EBCI) Board of Elections. About 1,000 members voted against the measure.

As a sovereign nation and a federally recognized tribe, the Eastern Band can pass measures on cannabis without regard to state or federal prohibitions.

The tribe agreed to legalize medical marijuana in 2021, opening the door for the cultivation and sale of cannabis on the Qualla Boundary.

EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle has been working at legalize marijuana since 2015.

He was excited about the passage.

“[From] the support that folks were expressing both privately and publicly, I think we saw this coming,” Owle said.

He explained his personal belief that the federal laws should have changed a long time ago.

“For us, as the EBCI, as a sovereign nation, we are going to move forward with the results of tonight with an adult use program, and really the way that I see it is that we are putting an issue to bed,” Owle said.

The tribe  approved medical cannabis in a 2021 referendum and started accepting applications  in July 2023. The Boundary’s dispensary, Great Smoky Cannabis Company, held an open house in August and is currently hiring.

The dispensary is expected to open in the fall.

Owle said the Cannabis Control board will start issuing medical use cards soon.

“I’ve been made aware that the systems to get the cards printed up for the approved patients are scheduled to be online in a week or so,” Owle said.

The tribe has grown and cultivated $30 million of cannabis, according to the News and Observer. Owle remembers when farmers on the Boundary first started growing plants in the cannabis family.

“It was our farmers first step to getting their fingers dirty with hemp to see what is growing was like,” Owle said in 2020.

Eastern Band members took part in a 2017 pilot program to grow hemp. The program was authorized in 2014.

The Eastern Band then did a feasibility study on the mass production of hemp which was presented in 2019. Because hemp became legalized by the federal government in 2018, the market is already saturated with the mass of CBD products.

Recognizing the oversaturation of the CBD market, tribal leaders moved to a consideration of cannabis. Qualla Enterprises, LLC, the EBCI’s for-profit cannabis company set up an operation to grow, market and sell cannabis.

Forrest Parker, general manager of the company, explained at a tribal council meeting in July that legalization of cannabis would increase the tribe’s profit margins for their cannabis business.

“Gross revenue from medical cannabis starts at $206 million and approaches $578 million by year five. If adult use were legalized, revenue could conservatively reach $385 million in the first year and exceed $800 million by year five,” Parker said in tribal council, according to the Cherokee One Feather.

Today's vote doesn’t mean cannabis will be available on the Boundary tomorrow, according to Owle. The measure begins the process for the Eastern Band Tribal Council to craft a recreational use law.

He said it is too soon to talk about the impact of recreational use on the tribe but that the medical program will provide insight on the business.

“Things will progress forward and we'll see how businesses are able to take advantage of it with what the tribe brings forth with the opportunity," he said. "But comparing it to other states and other countries that have done it, I think it's been well received. There's been obvious economic benefit from the taxation of it, and we'll probably see something similar."

Owle said he expects sales for recreational use to happen in 9 to 18 months.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.