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Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council approves recreational marijuana sale

Beloved woman Myrtle Driver Johnson buying the first first medical marijuana on the Qualla Boundary. Tribal Council approved adult-use of marijuana sales on the boundary.
Beloved woman Myrtle Driver Johnson buying the first first medical marijuana on the Qualla Boundary. Tribal Council approved adult-use of marijuana sales on the boundary.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council has approved recreational marijuana sales on the Qualla Boundary.

The move is an expansion of medical marijuana sales that started at the tribe’s Great Smoky Cannabis Company dispensary in April. The Tribal Council vote on Thursday comes nine months after 70% of Cherokee voters approved a referendum to legalize the use and possession of cannabis by adults age 21 or older.

Tribal council passed a resolution to regulate the sale of recreational cannabis as well as two floor amendments. Two council members, out of the twelve who sit around the horseshoe, voted against the measure: Council member Dike Sneed and Vice Chairman David Wolfe. Council member Adam Wachacha was not present.

Three council members were opposed to the home-grow floor amendment.

The amendment was updated during tribal council to include that home-grow will only be allowed for enrolled tribal members with medical cards who do not live with minors. The maximum amount of plants that can be grown is four.

An amendment to prohibit the sale of hemp products by non-tribally owned businesses on the boundary was also accepted by tribal council.

The resolution now goes to Principal Chief Michell Hicks' desk for review before being signed into law.

Since the voter referendum, Tribal Council has had multiple meetings to work through the details of implementing recreational marijuana on the Boundary. The tribe approved adult use in a September 2023 referendum.

Voters first approved the sale of medical cannabis in a 2021 referendum.

Recently, community members have expressed frustration at the slow-moving process toward wider adult use.

“Out here in the community, 70% of people are ready to move forward and all they are waiting on is you. What’s the problem, gentlemen? Why are we holding this up,” former council member Theresa McCoy asked at a May 7 Tribal Council meeting. “I hear it out there too. ‘Theresa, go down there and tell them.’ So here I am.”

Before the dispensary’s opening in April, tribal leadership issued a joint statement acknowledging implementation of the referendum allowing for recreational use would take time.

“This is a process that cannot be rushed; there are numerous factors to consider so that we are able to make the best decisions as these are decisions that can have significant long-term impacts on our tribe,” officials said in the statement.

Following voter approval, Tribal Council members have held several meetings to discuss how to regulate recreational cannabis sales and use, as well as previously approved home-grow.

The council directed the tribe’s Attorney General’s office and dispensary operator Qualla Enterprises to gather information and provide implementation plans to elected members for a vote. The resulting resolution, Resolution 63, passed Thursday amends Cherokee Code to allow for adult use of marijuana.

The resolution includes definitions of cannabis and hemp, the role of the cannabis control board and updates for other guidelines.

The resolution effectively decriminalizes cannabis on the Boundary. But it updates the amount of marijuana that will be considered trafficking in the Cherokee Code to any amount over 1lb.

It is also still unlawful for anyone under 21 years old to possess marijuana or to sell, give or transfer marijuana to those who are underage.

Certain activities may still be criminally prosecuted such as driving under the influence of cannabis, driving with an open container of cannabis and possession of cannabis on school property.

At the most recent work session on May 30, commissioners heard from the Attorney General’s office about the newest version of rules surrounding the code update. These include updates to the current criminal code, new rules for local vape shops, rules for where smoking is allowed and other guidelines. Tribal Council approved those changes on Thursday.

The resolution outlines that it is illegal to consume marijuana in public and specifically illegal to possess or consume marijuana within 100 feet of a school, child day care facility, church, hospital, tribal government building, public park, playground, community club building, public swimming pool or community facility.

Violating these rules will result in a criminal offense that is punishable with a fine of up to $500 dollars, 72 hours of community service, and a substance abuse assessment. Fines and punishments increase for subsequent offenses to include jail time.

Forrest Parker of Qualla Enterprises confirmed after the vote that the dispensary's goal will be to make products available for enrolled tribal members in 30 to 45 days and then open to the general public in 60 to 75 days.

"It's an extremely historic and exciting time for the tribe and our people on many, many levels," Parker said after the vote.

The move to recreational sales will require the Great Smoky Cannabis Company to prepare for more sales. That will include new protocols, more staff and other updates.

"We're building a business and serving a market at the same time so it works really well because we are able to take the things that we learn and implement them very fast," said Parker.

He says it could take between 10 days and two weeks for the legislation will be approved by the Principal Chief's office.

"It's a very historic and important piece of legislation and so it deserves whatever time that it needs to get that done. Obviously we hope that it's done very fast but at the same time it has to be done right," said Parker.

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.
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