Archived News

Tribe loosens marijuana laws

Tribe loosens marijuana laws

In a pair of actions taken during Tribal Council on Thursday, May 6, Tribal Council voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to stop testing Housing Improvement Program residents and applicants for the drug. 

“I know several people who are smoking it for the fact that it gives them relief,” said Birdtown Representative Boyd Owle. “That’s what I’m here for, to help the people help themselves. I think it would be a crime to take them to court.”

The decriminalization ordinance was first discussed last month, and while most council members supported its intent, several said they believed that version to be too favorable towards drug dealers and pointed out that it did not include an age limit for legal possession. 

This month, Principal Chief Richard Sneed introduced a new version that contained three significant changes from the document read last month. While the previous version would have removed criminal penalties for possessing 1.5 ounces or less of marijuana or 0.15 ounces of hashish, in the approved version the threshold was knocked down to 1 ounce of marijuana, while the limit for hashish remained the same. 

The new version also includes an age limit. Possession of any amount is still illegal for people younger than 21. 

Finally, the new version aimed to address concerns about boosting the black market by deleting a section of the current tribal code stating that transferring less than 5 grams of marijuana does not constitute a delivery if no money is exchanged. Tribal Council approved an ordinance that would cause any transfer of any amount of marijuana to constitute a crime, regardless of whether money is involved. 

Related Items

Council members who spoke in favor of the ordinance highlighted the medicinal benefits of marijuana, couching the vote as a step toward establishing a medicinal marijuana program on the Qualla Boundary.

“There’s so much science now supporting cannabis as a medicine,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed, who last month told Council the drug had done wonders for his son’s mental health issues where other interventions had failed. Decriminalizing small amounts is a “quality of life issue” for people battling debilitating disease, he said. 

“If we had to start all over today, alcohol would be the one that wasn’t legal,” said Birdtown Representative Albert Rose, citing the role alcohol plays in crimes such as domestic violence. 

The measure passed with the support of all council members save Painttown Representative Dike Sneed, who previously served as the tribe’s police chief and has consistently opposed all legislation aimed at loosening enforcement of marijuana laws. 

He also provided the sole opposing vote on the second marijuana-related item of the day, a measure Big Cove Representative Richard French introduced to prevent the Housing Improvement Program from penalizing residents and prospective residents for private marijuana use. 

“I just want to let everybody know why I’m not in support of the marijuana bill,” he said. “I swore an oath, put my hand on the Bible, when I became a cop, and I got to uphold the laws of North Carolina and any other law out there, federal laws. It’s still against the law, so I’ll not be able to support any of it.”

HIP is a tribal program that provides housing for enrolled members who don’t have any other housing options and are at least 59.5 years old and/or have qualifying disabilities. The HIP resolution points out that Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos and the tribal government have both loosened employee drug testing requirements as it relates to marijuana and alleges that by denying access to housing or threatening eviction due to a positive marijuana test, “the Tribe is penalizing its neediest members who, as it happens, would probably benefit the most from the responsible, personal use of marijuana in their own homes.”

“The reason I brought this in, I was contacted by some elders, some of them cancer patients, that said that they weren’t afraid to admit that they were smoking marijuana in their homes,” said French. “It helps with their pain and they would rather do that than take the opioids, and I agreed with them.”

The resolution concludes by directing the HIP committee to amend its program documents to delete marijuana from the list of controlled substances for which applicants and residents can be tested and to make the new program documents and policies flexible enough to accommodate future marijuana-related changes in tribal law. Additionally, anyone who was previously denied housing due solely to marijuana use will be able to reapply. 

This is necessary, the resolution reads, “so that HIP applicants and HIP residents are treated the same as everyone else governed by Tribal law and are not subject to increased scrutiny or threat of eviction merely because they live in a HIP home.”

The legislation still requires Sneed’s ratification to become effective. He plans to sign both the resolution and the ordinance after the mandatory 10-day waiting period is complete. Once in effect, the decriminalization law would apply only under tribal jurisdiction within the Qualla Boundary. Possession is still illegal in North Carolina, though it doesn’t become a felony unless the defendant carries at least 1.5 ounces, and a $200 fine is the maximum punishment for possessing less than half an ounce. 

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.