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2023 A Look Back: Hard Joint to Pass Award

The tribally owned Qualla Enterprises LLC started growing cannabis this year but has not yet opened its dispensary. The tribally owned Qualla Enterprises LLC started growing cannabis this year but has not yet opened its dispensary. File photo

Sharing smokes has proven more difficult than anticipated for the winners of this award, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ cannabis business Qualla Enterprises LLC. 

Qualla Enterprises, first organized as Cherokee Medical LLC, has received $31 million in tribal funding since March 2022 and began growing cannabis for medicinal use this spring. The EBCI has big hopes for the business, which aims to employ nearly 500 people and to generate enough revenue to send $260 million back to the tribe by 2026. In September, tribal members voted overwhelmingly to support legalizing cannabis use for adults 21 and older, which would vastly expand the enterprise’s potential customer base.

But Qualla Enterprises has yet to turn a profit, in large part because it has yet to figure out how to transport cannabis from the farm on Coopers Creek to the main Qualla Boundary, where the dispensary is located. Driving between the two locations requires passing through a short piece of road under the jurisdiction of Swain County, where marijuana remains an illegal substance. Sheriff Curtis Cochran has made it clear he intends to enforce that law.

In a Facebook post following the September election, Qualla Enterprises said it expected the dispensary to open in late 2023 — but with just days left in the year, no opening date has been announced. Moreover, the enterprise is running out of money as it works toward a funding agreement with Tribal Council. In November the body allotted $3 million in stop-gap funding but laid out a series of stipulations that Qualla Enterprise must meet before accessing the additional $16 million it says it needs to move the business forward. Working out a transportation plan is one of those requirements.

Once Qualla Enterprises starts passing those joints, every North Carolina resident with a medical card will be able to follow suit.

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