Voters in Cherokee tribe back adult use of marijuana in referendum

FILE - Marijuana plants are seen at a growing facility. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

CHEROKEE — Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have backed overwhelmingly the adult use of marijuana on their tribal land, even as they await the opening of a dispensary for those who seek it for medicinal use. 

Unofficial results showed that 70% of voters said “yes” last Thursday in a referendum that opens the door to the western North Carolina reservation being the first location in the state where pot for recreational use can be legally purchased, news outlets reported. 

The question put to a vote by the Eastern Band tribal council asked whether members supported legalizing the possession and use of cannabis by people at least 21 years old, and requiring the council to develop legislation to regulate a market. 

In 2021, the tribe decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana within the Eastern Band’s 89-square-mile Qualla Boundary in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tribe also formed a medical marijuana system that includes a tribe-created business to grow cannabis and sell it in a dispensary — which will make it the first and only place to legally purchase marijuana in North Carolina. The dispensary should be selling products by December, officials said this week. 

The Eastern Band, which has about 14,000 members and operates two casinos, can pass rules permitting cannabis use regardless of state or federal prohibitions because it is a sovereign nation and federally recognized tribe. Marijuana use remains illegal in the rest of North Carolina. 

Forrest Parker, general manager of Qualla Enterprises LLC, which was formed to run the tribe’s cannabis business, told council members as they agreed to the referendum question that permitting adult use would mean more customers and revenue for the tribe. 

Joey Owle, the tribe’s agriculture and natural resources secretary, said he anticipated sales for recreational use to begin in nine to 18 months. In the meantime, those seeking cannabis for medical use will receive special cards to purchase it. 

Opponents of legalizing marijuana use say it can lead to medical harm, including mental health decline for young people. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, who represents western North Carolina, introduced a bill that would withhold 10% of federal highway funds from tribes and states that permit recreational marijuana. 

“Here in our beloved mountains, we are already facing unprecedented crime, drug addiction and mental illness,” Edwards wrote Aug. 17 in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper. “I can’t stand by and condone even greater access to drugs to poison more folks in (western North Carolina), not to mention having even more impaired drivers on our roads.” 

In its own statement to the newspaper this week, Qualla Enterprises said studies have identified ways that adult use of cannabis “actually decreases crime and promotes public health and order.” 

The referendum vote occurred during the tribe’s general election for principal chief and council members. 

Unofficial results show that current Principal Chief Richard Sneed lost his position to past Principal Chief Michell Hicks, with Hicks winning by more than 1,000 votes out of over 3,400 cast. An overwhelming majority also voted “yes” for a referendum asking that the tribe’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission be allowed to permit restaurants, hotels and other entities to sell mixed beverages. 

Election results are expected to be certified by early October, according to the tribe’s election office.