North Carolina: Sale, use of cannabis approved on Eastern Band Cherokee land, with store near casino

June 13, 2024 7:58 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Associated Press
June 13, 2024 7:58 PM

CHEROKEE, N.C. (AP) — The recreational sale and use of marijuana for adults on western North Carolina tribal land could begin this summer after the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians governing board voted for an ordinance expanding approved use just weeks after its medical marijuana dispensary opened.

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Several months earlier, tribe members backed adult recreational use on their reservation. The September referendum, approved by 70% of voters, also required the council to develop legislation to regulate such a market. Tribal leaders spent months crafting the adult-use ordinance approved Thursday by an 8-2 vote.

Plans for a medical cannabis system and the cultivation of cannabis plants already were underway before the referendum, and the tribe-owned Great Smoky Cannabis Co. within Eastern Band land known as the Qualla Boundary opened April 20 to great fanfare. Buyers so far have been limited to adults at least 21 years old with a tribe medical cannabis patient card or an out-of-state approved medical marijuana card.

But now sales and use would be lawful for any adult over 21 — not just tribal members — who comes to the reservation and the Great Smoky Cannabis store, located near the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, news outlets reported.

The legislation still must be ratified by Principal Chief Michell Hicks to become law.

While marijuana possession or use is otherwise illegal in North Carolina, the federally recognized tribe can pass rules related to cannabis as a sovereign nation.

Forrest Parker with Qualla Enterprises, the tribe’s cannabis subsidiary, said adult-use sales will initially be limited to tribal members, likely starting in July. The expansion to others age 21 and older would happen beginning in early to mid-August, Parker said at a recent council work session on the legislation.

The marijuana sales center is predicted to be more of a revenue-generator for the 14,000-member tribe once its customer base is expanded. Qualla Enterprises released figures before last year’s referendum saying the dispensary could generate $385 million in gross sales revenues in its first year if the product was available to all adult users, compared to over $200 million if limited to medical patients. The medical marijuana program would continue.

Of North Carolina and its surrounding states, only Virginia allows for the legal recreational use of marijuana statewide.

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

The resolution effectively decriminalizes cannabis on the Qualla Boundary, but also updates the tribe’s laws to reflect its use. For example, it would be illegal to consume marijuana in public and specifically illegal to possess or consume marijuana within 100 feet of a school, daycare facility, church or hospital, among other locations.

Violating these rules could result in fines, community service and a substance abuse assessment, with jail time for subsequent offenses.

The tribal council also approved an amendment to prohibit sales of hemp products by businesses not owned by the tribe on the Boundary.

Hicks said last year he was glad that a recreational marijuana question was being put to the people, and that he wanted to see protections to keep cannabis use out of the sight of children if it did pass. He also had sought more ordinance language in the rules about marijuana testing standards.