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Tribal Council approves Cannabis Commission in Cherokee

Tribal Council approves Cannabis Commission in Cherokee

UPDATE: Principal Chief Richard Sneed vetoed this resolution on Oct. 2, after The Smoky Mountain News' press time. Tribal Council will hold a special session at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 4, to  hold a vote on whether to uphold or override the veto.

At its last meeting Sept. 12, Tribal Council voted to create the Cannabis Commission, a body that will work to get the tribe into the hemp business. 

The commission’s primary goal will be to create a hemp regulation plan for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that could then be submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval. The group will also develop proposed changes to tribal law and administrative rules to support the hemp industry’s development and create a long-term economic plan for the hemp industry on Cherokee land. 

Finally, the commission will develop “a long-range plan for the Cannabis Commission or other regulatory entity for the tribe,” according to the resolution — the legislation creates the commission effective Oct. 8 but gives it a sunset of Sept. 30, 2020. The commission could dissolve after that time, ask Council for permanent status or take up the issue under a new organization. 

“The reason why this is here is because you need to have two things happen before we get into the actual industry to initiate it, and that was one, removing hemp from the Controlled Substance Act, and two, to formulate a USDA plan for the tribe,” said Councilmember Jeremy Wilson, of Wolfetown, who introduced the resolution. “We need to have those two things come together before we can move forward completely.”

The first item on that list is now complete, thanks to a separate vote Tribal Council took Sept. 12. The body voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance, also sponsored by Wilson, that excludes hemp, hemp products and hemp extract from the definition of “marijuana” contained in the tribe’s Controlled Substances Act. 

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As introduced, the Cannabis Commission resolution called for a total budget of $240,000, much of which would go to a proposed $78,000 in stipends for members. However, Council balked at the proposed $1,000 per month payments to board members — the chair would earn $1,500 — many of whom already have high-paying tribal jobs. 

“Jackson County has theirs set up on different commissions. They get their lunch and that’s it,” said Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown. “They serve at will for the betterment of the county. All these people have already got jobs, so if they would serve at will I think it would be a great thing.”

For commission members, Wilson had suggested himself for chairman and as members Secretary of Agriculture Joey Owle, Secretary of Treasury Cory Blankenship, Cherokee Indian Hospital CEO Casey Cooper and Grants and Contracts Manager Demakus Staton, as well as Mary Crowe for a community representative. Saunooke suggested adding Richard Bird as an additional community representative, and Council concurred.

Tribal Council ended up walking back compensation levels for the board, removing Owle’s, Blankenship’s, Cooper’s and Staton’s specific names from the resolution and instead saying that the seat went with the person’s job title or to their designee. Further, Council removed the $1,000 monthly stipend from those seats, electing to provide compensation only for the chair and two community representatives. 

That change brought the commission stipends down from $78,000 to $42,000 for the year and consequently the total cost of the commission’s inaugural year from $240,000 to $204,000. The budget also includes $140,000 for legal, subject matter expertise and planning assistance contracts; $20,000 for training and travel; and $2,000 for office supplies and printing. 

There was some discussion as to whether Wilson could be appointed to the chair’s position quite yet. He has undoubtedly been the spearheader of cannabis-related economic development efforts in Cherokee and should be in the seat, councilmembers agreed, but is still a sitting elected official. Wilson did not win re-election, so his term will end Oct. 7. 

“It still concerns me that we’re going to pass this with Jeremy’s name,” said Vice Chairman David Wolfe. “Could we just leave that one blank and you can come in in October and add that name?”

Ultimately, the body decided to move the commission’s start date back from the suggested date of Oct. 1 to Oct. 8 — the first full day of the new term — and to leave the chairman’s spot blank for now. 

Council did receive some pushback from law enforcement as it considered the resolution. 

“I’m strongly opposed to bringing any kind of poison to our reservation,” said Police Chief Doug Pheasant. “We already have enough of an opioid problem here. Why are we considering bringing anything else here to make a dollar? I think we can find other revenue streams.”

Wilson took issue with the validity of Pheasant’s criticism, reminding him that the commission would be seeking only to establish a hemp industry, not a marijuana industry. 

“To be clear, this isn’t about marijuana,” he said. “It’s about hemp. Hemp is federally legal. I’ve made the statement clear that I’m not looking to legalize marijuana here on the boundary. What we are focused on is the hemp industry that is legal.”

Hemp, like marijuana, comes from plants in the genus Cannabis but it can’t be used to get high due to the fact that it contains less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive component THC. It’s increasingly being recognized as an economically valuable plant, its seeds, oils and fibers useful for countless products. 

“Hemp is legal. It’s a booming industry. You can do your own research across Indian Country,” said Wilson. 

However, he added, based on legal and cultural changes occurring nationwide, it seems inevitable that, at some point, the legality of marijuana itself will be part of the discussion. 

“I get the stigma and we’re trying to break that stigma,” he said. “But guys, whether you like it or not, marijuana’s going to be here at some point. That’s the reality of the issue. It’s making its way here. When it happens, I don’t know. But it’s coming.”

The resolution passed with Councilmember Tom Wahnetah, of Yellowhill, opposed, Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, absent, and Wilson abstaining. 

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