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Some alcohol permits could now be allowed in Cherokee

cherokeeIn Cherokee, alcohol could soon be available in more places than just Harrah’s Cherokee Casino following Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature on a 12-page alcohol omnibus bill. 

The laws pertaining to Cherokee had started out as a standalone bill, which then got rolled into a bigger document that included provisions banning powdered alcohol, allowing retailers to sell growlers of wine and permitting distilleries to sell one bottle of their product to each visitor, among others. The measure passed handily with 47-7 in the Senate and 79-32 in the House, though Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnesville, logged a nay vote. 

“It’s just overwhelming,” she said of the bill. “It’s way too much. I think all these bills need to be looked at separately.”

But according to supporters of the Cherokee bill, introduced by Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, the big news from that section of the law has less to do with alcohol laws and more to do with equality. 

“This bill simply says, ‘Hey, you have all the same authority and permitting that the state ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) commission has, on your lands,’” said David Huskins, lobbyist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians ABC Commission. “No more, no less.”

Tribal Council had originally voted to adopt the pieces of North Carolina alcohol law in question in 2011, but due to the construction of the state law, certain parts of that law could not go into effect. Among them was a list of permit types that a local ABC board can grant without requiring a referendum vote. 

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“In the state of North Carolina, towns and counties have to have referendums, but the state law does permit the issuance of certain permits without a referendum,” Huskins said, “so what the state’s done is apply those same laws to Cherokee.” 

However, decisions regarding alcohol on the reservation have long been controversial, with a sizable cohort of people staunchly opposed to alcohol sales for moral and cultural reasons. Alcoholism has historically had a disproportionate effect on Native American populations, opponents say, and the best thing the tribe can do for itself is to keep alcohol out. 

That belief held strongly enough that Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the only place on the reservation where alcohol sales are allowed, was originally run as an alcohol-free establishment. Alcohol sales were only allowed there after a 2009 referendum vote, when 58.7 percent of voters said it should be sold there. 

Denny Crowe, pastor at Old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, had been an outspoken opponent of alcohol sales then, and while he said he hasn’t been able to gather enough information on the new law to make a comment on it, he affirmed that he believes alcohol consumption, as a rule, is something that should be discouraged on the reservation rather than encouraged. 

But Cherokee can still choose to remain a dry area, Huskins said. For example, in Graham County, North Carolina’s only dry county, voters would have to approve nearly any kind of alcohol sale. However, permits could be granted without a referendum for some purposes, such as one-time permits for special events, brown-bagging at clubs and veterans organizations and tourism resorts and ABC establishments — those include tourist-drawing restaurants within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and resorts centering around golf, tennis and equestrian sports. 

The new law will carry those same exemptions over to Cherokee. The ABC Commission could grant one-time alcohol permits for a festival or approve it at certain businesses designed to attract tourists. The law would also allow for distilleries and breweries to be built on the reservation, though those establishments would not be permitted to sell their wares on the Qualla Boundary. 

The law is less than two weeks out from its passage, and as of yet the ABC Commission has not received any permit requests, said Chair Collette Coggins. However, it’s still early in the game with plenty of details to be worked out before the majority of those newly allowed permits could be given.

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