Three Cherokee men, part of a group calling itself Common Sense Cannabis, spurred the discussion with a resolution asking Tribal Council to fund a study examining the feasibility of allowing marijuana use on tribal lands.
“What we’re trying to do here is not just legalize marijuana so everybody can smoke a joint,” said Joseph Owle, a Wolfetown resident and member of the group. “We’re here to discuss the legitimate and lucrative opportunities around cannabis and the many facets in which it can be used for this tribe.”
Those opportunities aren’t limited just to recreational use. The tribe could look at allowing cannabis in medicinal applications, and it could also consider it as an agricultural product — especially varieties primarily used in medicines or for their hemp fibers, a traditional material in Cherokee culture.
“One of our issues in the community is opioid abuse,” said Yona Wade a Painttown resident and member of Common Sense Cannabis. “I think one of the questions we should ask is why we continue to provide opioids or not allow our people an alternate choice in treating pain.”
If medical marijuana were legal, Wade suggested, perhaps pain could be treated more effectively and with fewer of the dangerous side effects that accompany reliance on opioids. Wade told council that his mother is one of the many who lives with chronic pain, having broken her neck while horseback riding. Aware of the risk, she refuses to take opioids, but compounds found in marijuana could provide an effective but safe alternative, he said.
Though the final version of the resolution was approved unanimously, the concept of legalized marijuana drew mixed reviews from councilmembers.
“The last time Yellowhill Community met on this issue, they were totally opposed to it, but I told Joey (Owle) I would keep an open mind, and that’s what I’m trying to do, because it is a business,” said Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind and weigh it out, but I do have a lot of questions that I hope the feasibility study will address,” said Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, mentioning issues surrounding taxation, regulation and potential negative social side effects.
Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, meanwhile, expressed her support for the medical side of things while asserting that her community would likely never be OK with legalizing recreational use.
“I think there is a cure for cancer. I think we’ve had it all along, but I think the pharmaceutical companies have the politicians in their back pocket,” McCoy said.
Several councilmembers suggested tabling the resolution until they could go talk with their constituents about it.
“This issue is a bigger issue than I want to be alone in voting for,” Wachacha said. “To me this is further down the line, a referendum vote.”
A referendum vote would indeed be appropriate, countered McCoy, if council were looking at a resolution to actually legalize marijuana. But that’s not what the resolution asks — it’s simply requesting funding to do a study evaluating whether the idea is worth further consideration.
“If you have nothing to take to your community, what do you expect back from them?” McCoy said. “I say do the feasibility study and take it to the communities and let them hear it, and then bring it back.”
Once the feasibility study is complete, McCoy said, the people should vote on which, if any, uses should be legal.
If the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians decides to pursue marijuana legalization, it would not be the first Indian tribe in the U.S. to do so. In October 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a policy statement essentially saying that it would give Indian tribes the latitude to decide for themselves whether to allow marijuana use on their lands — provided legal uses don’t interfere with the DOJ’s eight main priorities when it comes to law enforcement for marijuana — essentially granting tribes the same leeway as that now given to states.
Since then, several tribes have legalized some form of marijuana use, with many more considering the possibility. The Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota has even announced plans to open the nation’s first marijuana resort.
So far, 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, with the issue making an appearance in the N.C. General Assembly this year. A comprehensive medical marijuana bill was introduced but died in committee, while another bill, permitting hemp extract for treatment of epilepsy, became law. Another law passed this year sets up an agricultural pilot program to look at cultivating industrial hemp in North Carolina.
“We want to see the tribe be on the front end of this, not behind,” Owle said of the Eastern Band.
The resolution calls for a study costing “not more than” $200,000, with an amendment added before the vote clarifying that the Public Health and Human Services Department will oversee the study, with funding coming from the tribe’s grant match fund.
“It’s just going to be a study,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown. “Once the study’s over if Wolfetown community doesn’t want this, I will not support it, but right now I think it’s worth looking at a study on it.”