The tribal council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted on Thursday to approve an ordinance that legalizes medical marijuana on tribal lands. The vote applies to the tribe’s lands known as the Qualla Boundary, which covers 100 square miles over five counties in western North Carolina.
Cannabis is still illegal in North Carolina, although possession of less than one ounce is punishable by only a fine. The move by the council will make the tribe’s sovereign lands the only place within the state’s borders where marijuana can be legally possessed.
Before the council’s vote, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said that the new ordinance is the first of several steps to fully legalize medical marijuana.
“There’s so much science now supporting cannabis as a medicine,” Sneed told the tribal council. “This really is a quality of life issue as well for folks who have debilitating diseases, chronic pain, chronic back pain, cancer.”
“This is really just the first step, or kind of the cornerstone of moving toward medicinal. We have to have this in place first,” he added.
The council voted to remove a provision of the ordinance that would have allowed tribal members to give away but not sell small quantities of cannabis. Albert Rose, a member of the council who voted in favor of the ordinance, said that cannabis is already present on tribal land.
“Go out and visit with some of the elders, it’s their medicine,” said Rose.
Cherokee Tribe Plans More Reforms
Jeremy Wilson, the tribe’s government affairs liaison, said that “the people want cannabis, the world is changing, society is changing.”
With possession of cannabis for medicinal use now legal on tribal lands, the next piece of the puzzle will be to draft and implement regulations for the production, manufacturing, and sale of medical marijuana products.
“We want to have dispensaries here on the Qualla Boundary and to be able to sell, but we have to start with this phase first,” Wilson said.
Council member Richard French said that legalizing medicinal cannabis could help stem the opioid epidemic in the area, saying at the meeting that “it’s for the betterment of our people.”
“All of us have been affected by opioids,” he said. “All of us have lost someone.”
After a meeting to consider the ordinance last month, Wilson said that legalizing medical marijuana would be a victory against addiction.
“What we’re doing here is trying to find a pathway to finally doing something about the opioid crisis that we’ve dealt with for so long,” he said. “A lot of people would want to use marijuana for their ailments versus resorting to a higher dose of prescription medication. There’s multiple stories out there that those things do lead to addiction.”
A Years-Long Process
In 2015, tribal leaders voted to begin drafting a medical cannabis ordinance. Since that time, the issue has steadily gained support from members of the tribe.
“Over the course of three years that I’ve been working on this, we’ve gained a good momentum of support in the public and more and more people are starting to grasp the idea of cannabis, marijuana to be exact, to be our next game-changer,” Wilson said earlier this year.
Currently, much of the economic opportunity for the Eastern Cherokee lies in the casino it operates on tribal lands. But some of that revenue could be jeopardized by a casino being developed by the Catawba Nation outside Charlotte at Kings Mountain. A newly legal medical marijuana industry on the Qualla Boundary could establish a new source of income for the Cherokee.
“Getting us to a place and a legal framework to where we can have a dispensary here to supply the medical marijuana that the public would need and create a new revenue line for us,” Wilson said.