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Drug use in Cherokee to come with a price

Drug use in Cherokee to come with a price

Possessing drugs on the Qualla Boundary will get a lot more expensive following a decision this month to ratchet up fines for anyone — enrolled and non-enrolled people alike — caught with illegal substances. 

The legislation mandates a fine of $1,500 for each illegal substance a person possesses, up to a maximum of $5,000. That’s an even heftier fine than the range of $50 to $500, depending on the substance, originally proposed when the legislation made its way to Budget Council Aug. 2. At the suggestion of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, Council tacked on an amendment to increase those amounts. 

“I want to ask that the amounts on this be doubled or perhaps tripled,” Lambert told council. “Let’s make it real.”

Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, concurred that the originally drafted fines were too small, comparing them to those already in place for alcohol and drug-related crimes. According to Cherokee code, crimes involving the use, possession, sale or distribution of alcohol or controlled substances are subject to an additional $1,000 fee, half of which goes to drug education in Cherokee schools and half of which goes to the Community Watch Program. 

“If you get caught with an open container that’s $1,000 bucks,” Smith said. “Drugs, they’re a little more serious than that.” 

Smith then moved to increase the fine to a flat $1,500 per substance, up to the maximum $5,000. Council accepted the amendment. 

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However, while the $1,000 fine Smith had referred to deals with criminal violations, the newly adopted fines are civil penalties. In Cherokee, that distinction is key to being able to penalize non-tribal members as well as tribal members. 

“This impacts not just enrolled members, this impacts nonmembers and gives us a means to hit those people who are bringing drugs onto our boundary in a real meaningful way,” Lambert said. 

Though tribal members certainly aren’t the only ones to use illegal drugs on the Qualla Boundary, the legal structure makes it difficult to prosecute those who aren’t part of a recognized Indian tribe. While there are exceptions for some situations, generally speaking non-Indian people who commit crimes on tribal land can’t be charged in Tribal Court. Instead, they’re sent to state or federal court. 

Adopting stringent civil fines will give the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians a way to punish non-Indian drug offenders while still remaining within its legal boundaries.

However, pointed out Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, the tribe will also need to think about how to collect on the fines it levies. If, after being hit with a civil penalty, a person leaves Cherokee land to go back to their home state or county, how can the tribe get its money? 

It should work quite easily, said Sheena Meader of the tribe’s Office of the Attorney General. 

“If they fail to pay the fine, we can issue a judgment lien against them,” Meader said, “and those judgments are given full faith and credit.”

“Ok. I like that,” McCoy replied.

Because the fines are civil, not criminal, violators will not be entitled to an attorney as they would if being hit with a criminal charge, Meader added, so the new fines won’t mean the tribe’s stuck with footing the bill for a boatload of public defenders. 

Of course, along with punishing offenders tribal government must also look for ways to transform addicts into productive members of society. And those are questions that the tribe is working to address.

In June 2015, council approved a 15-point plan to address substance abuse issues from prevention to rehabilitation, allotting $16 million for facilities and $2.2 million for annual operations to get the job done. This summer the tribe broke ground on a $13.5 million recovery center in Snowbird, with other parts of the plan, such as Analenisgi Behavioral Health, already in motion.  

The new fine structure is just one part of the overall effort to curtail drug addiction on the Qualla Boundary. The new policy will go into effect 30 days after Lambert’s Aug. 18 ratification. 

“I made a commitment when I took office that I would protect Cherokee families and help stem the tide of drug use in our community,” Lambert said. “That is why I have brought forward these changes that would hit drug dealers right where it hurts, their pockets.”

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