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Cherokee chief vetoes marijuana study; council upholds veto

fr marijuanaJust over a month after voting unanimously to study the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana on the Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee Tribal Council held a vote whose outcome was nearly a mirror image of the first. Last week, council voted 11-1 to uphold Principal Chief Patrick Lambert’s veto of the study, with Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, the sole nay vote.

It was Oct. 29 when council originally heard a resolution from a group calling itself Common Sense Cannabis to fund a study that would look into potentially legalizing marijuana — for medicinal, recreational or agricultural use, or for all of the above — on Cherokee lands. The resolution had elicited objections from council members who wondered if the question should be tabled to allow more time for community input and research, or even if it should be decided by referendum vote rather than in council chambers. But in the end, every one of the 12 council members had raised their hands in favor. 

Principal Chief Patrick Lambert never signed the legislation, however, and on Nov. 23 he sent Council Chairman Bill Taylor a letter detailing why he was opting to veto it. The crux of his argument was that drug use in Cherokee is at “epidemic proportions,” and so it would be irresponsible for tribal government to spend any amount of money to consider legalizing yet another drug. 

“The legalization for recreational use of marijuana within our communities would create a haven for outsiders to come onto our boundary and use an otherwise illegal substance,” he wrote in the veto letter. “The detrimental impacts this would have on our communities is immeasurable in its human toll.” 

Further, Lambert said, the resolution didn’t lay out any kind of budgetary plan for the funding or say who would conduct the study. It needed stricter accountability. 

In Cherokee government, Tribal Council can overturn a chief’s veto with a two-thirds majority. With a unanimous vote to start out with, it seemed council would have an easy time maintaining its decision. 

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But that’s not how it turned out. With more than a month separating the two votes, councilmembers had plenty of time to think and talk about the issue, and most of them wound up changing their minds. 

“We really worked hard to send the right message to the community about drugs and prevention, and it just sort of seemed to send the wrong message after we had time to reflect on it,” said Council Vice Chair Brandon Jones, of Snowbird. 

To wit, the vote on Lambert’s veto came directly after an emotional discussion about what tribal government could do policy-wise to combat the drug issues that are ripping many Cherokee families apart (see related story on page 5). 

There was very little discussion before the vote, with Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, moving to uphold Lambert’s veto the moment Council Chairman Bill Taylor finished laying out the procedure. 


Not a dead issue

The vote doesn’t mean that the cannabis issue is dead, however — it just means that council has decided that tribal government shouldn’t spend any money considering legalizing its use recreationally.  

In fact, even the original October vote was surprisingly noncontroversial, Jones said. He fielded only three calls on the matter, far fewer than the 25 to 30 he’ll often take for a hot-button issue. 

Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, said he’d gotten calls, but they were overwhelmingly positive. 

“The calls that I got, probably 99-percent of them were based on the medical use of marijuana,” Ensley said in council last week. “Our community was in favor of that.” 

Council doesn’t necessarily disagree with the merits of medical marijuana, Jones said. 

“I would say the majority (of councilmembers) for certain still wants to look into the medicinal purposes of marijuana,” he said. 

Joseph Owle of Common Sense Cannabis plans to ensure that happens by drafting another version of his original resolution, striking references to recreational use and concentrating on the medicinal applications. The Cherokee people, as a whole, want medicinal use legalized, Owle said, and after seeing how the drug helped his grandfather battle the final stages of cancer back in 2013, the issue is rather personal. 

“Seeing this man consume marijuana and its positive effect when no pharmaceutical drug could is why we support it,” he said of his late grandfather.  

Other, similar testimonies had peppered the October council session where the study was originally approved, and interest in pursuing that aspect doesn’t appear ready to disappear any time soon. 

Another aspect that could fall within the scope of any future study is the agricultural use of cannabis — growing varieties low in THC for use as hemp. It’s a traditional material for the Cherokee people, and legalizing that use has some strong support in the community. 

“There’s a lot of economic aspects to it that would benefit people who have land that they can grow hemp on,” tribal member Amy Walker told council in November. 

When thrown in with discussions on recreational and medicinal applications, however, agricultural is a low priority, though not necessarily controversial. 

“If they included that piece in the study, nobody I don’t think would have a problem with it, but I just don’t see a big demand for it in our area,” Jones said. 

A new resolution that concentrated on medicinal — and possibly agricultural — uses of marijuana could find more success than the one introduced in October. Lambert himself has indicated he wouldn’t be inclined to protest a new piece of legislation that probed the possibility of medicinal marijuana in Cherokee, as long as it left the recreational aspects far behind. 

“I’m not opposed to that (medicinal use), and I think that was clear in my comments,” Lambert told council last week. “I know there are some very good medicinal purposes for drugs, including those that are killing our kids right now, and that also includes marijuana.”

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