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Cherokee moves toward marijuana legalization

cherokeeCherokee took another step along the road toward legalizing medicinal marijuana with a vote last week to start drafting legislation that would let the drug be produced and prescribed on the Qualla Boundary.

“If I can sit here and I can do anything to alleviate the pain or the suffering of anyone who is diabetic, has cancer, has seizures, I’m going to sit here and raise my hand to support that,” said Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, moving to pass the legislation as soon as the floor opened for discussion. 

McCoy has been in support of loosened cannabis rules on Cherokee land since the issue first made its way to council chambers in November, brought forward by a group of three Cherokee men who had formed a group called Common Sense Cannabis to support marijuana legalization. 

They’d originally approached council requesting a study looking at the feasibility of allowing cannabis for medicinal, industrial and recreational use — a request which council originally passed but then rescinded in December after Principal Chief Patrick Lambert issued a veto. Lambert took issue with the recreational component of the proposal. Drug use in Cherokee was already at “epidemic proportions,” Lambert had argued in his veto letter, and legalizing recreational marijuana would “create a haven for outsiders to come onto our boundary and use an otherwise illegal substance.” Council upheld the veto in a vote that was nearly an exact mirror of its initial one on the issue, but everybody understood that the question of medical marijuana legalization would likely resurface. 


A focus on medical use 

For Yona Wade, one of the leaders of Common Sense Cannabis, medical legalization was always the main goal of advocacy. He became interested in the policy change, he said, after his mother broke her back while riding a horse. A social worker, she’d seen firsthand the havoc wreaked by opiate drugs and refused to take them despite the pain she was in after the nerve-damaging accident. Cannabis, Wade believes, could make pain like that go away without creating the risk of addiction that opiates bring. 

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“My mother is not an enrolled member of any tribe,” Wade said. “She’s white. This passing or being able to create ordinances to develop law does not even affect her. But it has the potential to affect people who have similar conditions.”

After the initial resolution failed, Tribal Council tasked Common Sense Cannabis with the job of gathering data to show what tribal members thought about the issue. The group organized meetings in all of the tribe’s communities, presenting information on the effort and handing out surveys. No meeting could be scheduled in the 3,200-Acre Tract community, Common Sense Cannabis leader Joseph Owle said, and no surveys were returned from the Tow String Community. But aside from those two areas, all communities were represented in the 172 surveys collected. 

“I think we generated some pretty promising and plain statistics,” Owle said. 

The survey asked a variety of questions, including the respondent’s age, whether they had consumed cannabis in the past, knew someone who consumed cannabis or supported allowing tribal members to own cannabis-oriented businesses. An overwhelming number said that recreational use should remain illegal, but the most significant result from the survey was that 71 percent of the 172 people who returned surveys said that they’d support marijuana legalization for medical use.

“This is a question that validates our reason for coming here today,” Owle said. 

The resolution passed last week does not make medical marijuana legal. Rather, it simply instructs the tribe’s attorney general to draft legislation that would make it legal, with a six-month timeframe written in to get the job done. 

This will be one of the first major tasks for Danny Davis, who Lambert recently named attorney general. In 2010, Davis, who lives in Waynesville, retired from 26 years as Chief District Court Judge of the 30th Judicial District in Western North Carolina.

Owle told council that he envisioned the initial draft as a collaboration between Davis and Common Sense Cannabis, with a committee composed of stakeholders such as Cherokee Indian Hospital, Public Health and Human Services and the Cherokee Police Department giving input on the draft after it had been completed. 

Councilmember Travis Smith didn’t agree with that plan, proposing an amendment to include those parties in the initial discussions with the attorney general. That amendment passed, with Councilmembers Adam Wachacha, Snowbird, and Marie Junaluska, Painttown, abstaining. 


An emotional topic

For some, the cannabis topic was an emotional one. A couple of audience members implored Tribal Council to pass the legislation so as to offer promise of relief from pain and debilitating medical conditions. 

“It seems as though the minute you are a diabetic, you are given a bag of 20 different medicines,” said Sheila Standingdeer, a tribal member and former hospital employee. “If you look, those same people that were diagnosed that day, you go down to DaVita Dialysis, you see those same people sitting in those chairs because of all that medicine.” 

Cannabis would provide an alternative to that fate, Standingdeer said, a more natural way to treat some conditions without the damaging side effects. 

“We’re native,” she said. “That’s what we use. It should be no different than going out and getting yellowroot for a sore throat.”

McCoy agreed. Her husband has diabetes, she said, and she wishes to see more holistic, natural alternatives to the chemical compounds and risk of side effects with which he’s asked to inundate his body.

“I don’t want my husband or any other member of this tribe to continue their lives on medicine that gives them the choice of losing their kidneys or losing their liver,” she said. “I don’t want to see any more people on this boundary be prescribed opiates.” 

Opiates are addictive and subject to overdose, Owle agreed, but in medical cannabis “addiction is little to non-existent.” 

Cindy Atine, a non-enrolled member who has raised three girls on the Qualla Boundary, also came forward to tell Tribal Council her story of support for medical cannabis. When her daughter, a dancer and basketball player, was diagnosed with lupis following sickness as a high school senior, the need for a better form of pain control became clear, she said. 

“The medicine that she was taking wasn’t helping, so they would give her other medicine because she was getting side effects from the pain medicine,” Atine said. “This is what she’s been dealing with for 12 years.”

These days, Atine and her daughter live in Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal.

“Today,” Atine said, “she’s off all her medication.”


Considering the caveats

Councilmembers didn’t voice much opposition to medical marijuana itself, with most of them avowing their support for such a policy change. But it was still a split vote, and councilmembers were full of caveats and questions as to how, exactly, the new law would work. 

“I’ve not heard nobody against the medical part of it, but what they want to make sure of is just anybody going up there with a twisted ankle or hurt finger or something like that, that they’re not being allowed to get it,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown.

“I support this also. Where I see the roadblock is the produce and provide on it,” said Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown. “From what I’ve seen this is not just grown on a field, this medical part. It’s in secured buildings. And there are scientists that man these plants and break it into a medicine that has to be approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).” 

How exactly, Rose asked, would the tribe go about getting a facility like that, with all its associated red tape, set up?

“What concerns me,” added Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, “is where you plant it. Who’s going to guard it? It would take a whole fleet to guard your plants, people.” 

Those are questions that will be answered and debated during the actual writing of the ordinance, Owle said. 

“What we’re asking for is to get the ball rolling so we can begin crafting that ordinance and the law around enacting this,” he said. 

Owle told council that Cherokee would need to produce its own oils if it wanted to allow its doctors to prescribe cannabis, due to laws about transport of the materials. However, he said, if North Carolina were to legalize medical cannabis the situation could change. 

“If it becomes legal in the state, we adopt those laws, but we would need the framework for going forward with our own medical program here in Cherokee,” Owle said. 

The University of Mississippi currently houses one of the nation’s largest marijuana research labs, and councilmembers discussed how they might go about collaborating with Ole Miss to spur any potential research efforts on the Qualla Boundary. 

Councilmember Anita Lossiah, who did her undergraduate program at Ole Miss, said she remembers seeing the fields there — from the outside at least. 

“They were surrounded by what resembled high fences you’d see around prisons,” she said. “It was very secure and protected.”

Down the road, Lossiah said, she’d be glad to reach out to the university to see what kind of help they could offer Cherokee. 

“I certainly do want to encourage any kind of medical research partnership we could look into as well, and we could discuss that also down the line,” she said. 

Cherokee’s resolution isn’t the only discussion regarding marijuana legalization that’s taken place recently. 

In February 2015, a bill to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina was introduced but died in committee. And currently a bill titled the Tribal Marijuana Sovereignty Act of 2016 is sitting in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would prevent federal agencies from considering a tribe’s marijuana-related laws when dispersing funding. According to the bill tracking website, it has only a 4 percent chance of being enacted. However, the two bills show that Cherokee is not the only government considering the issue. 

“There are people in my community today that have cancer, and if there’s something out there besides a narcotic that puts them to sleep that might give them some comfort for a little while, I want them to have it,” McCoy said. 

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