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Cherokee considers decriminalizing marijuana

Cherokee considers decriminalizing marijuana

Tribal Council voted unanimously April 1 to table an ordinance aiming to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. However, discussion preceding the vote indicates that some version of that ordinance will likely pass in the future. 

“I think everybody’s in agreeance to it for the most part,” said Chairman Adam Wachacha. “It’s just that I feel it that needs to be a little more regulated than just basically saying anybody and everybody can purchase.”

As currently written, the ordinance would remove criminal penalties for possession of 1.5 ounces or less of marijuana and 0.15 ounces of hashish. That ordinance change would apply only on Cherokee lands; possession of any amount would remain illegal on lands under state jurisdiction. 

In presenting the proposal, Governmental Affairs Liaison Jeremy Wilson said decriminalization would be an important victory in the fight to rein in the opioid epidemic. 

“What we’re doing here is trying to find a pathway to finally doing something about the opioid crisis that we’ve dealt with for so long,” said Wilson. “A lot of people would want to use marijuana for their ailments versus resorting to a higher dose of prescription medication. There’s multiple stories out there that those things do lead to addiction.”

The ordinance currently under discussion is only the first step, he added — over the course of the coming year Wilson expects to bring in a series of proposals aimed at setting up a full-blown medicinal marijuana program on the Qualla Boundary. The “ultimate goal,” he said, is legalization, adding that “we’re not there yet” and that decriminalization of small amounts is merely the “most proper step” in getting into the medical marijuana industry.

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Wolfetown Representative Chelsea Saunooke voiced her support for the measure, telling council about a family member who she’d all but lost to drugs when marijuana provided an alternative. 

“It was the only way that I got a family member back close to who they really were,” she said. 

Principal Chief Richard Sneed told a similar story. While serving as vice chief between 2015 and 2017, he said, he was dealing with a “violently bad” situation at home as behavioral issues his youngest son had dealt with his entire life came to a head during his teenage years. Doctors suggested antipsychotics, but Sneed was leery about subjecting his son to the side effects of those drugs. His son began to use cannabis instead.

“He uses it medicinally, and he is a different person,” said Sneed. “He’s somebody that the rest of our family now like to be around, and we want to be around him, whereas before, he was unbearable. So that’s our story and that’s why I am in support of this, because I have seen the benefits.”

Nationwide, public attitudes toward marijuana legalization are becoming increasingly positive. A 2020 Gallup pool found that 68 percent of U.S. adults support legalization, the highest reading in the five decades Gallup has tracked the metric. The first Gallup poll on the subject, held in 1969, showed that just 12 percent of Americans backed marijuana legalization. A Feb. 11 Facebook post from The Cherokee One Feather asking tribal members their thoughts on the issue yielded 189 comments, overwhelmingly in favor of legalization. 

The tribe has been discussing cannabis laws for some time and in 2019 created a Cannabis Commission tasked with creating a regulation plan for the production of the low-THC cannabis product hemp and developing proposed changes to tribal law and administrative rules — as well as a long-term economic plan — to support the hemp industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the tribe’s proposed hemp regulatory plan in December 2020, and the application process is now open.

“It’s a moral imperative that we make available the least harmful substance that people can use to deal with their situation,” said Sneed. “Then we’re going to take the next step and we’re going to actually implement a medical program.”

While no Council member expressed opposition to creating a medicinal marijuana program, several raised objections to the ordinance currently before them. 

For one thing, said Vice Chairman David Wolfe, the proposed language had no age limit attached to it. If passed as written, any person of any age — even a child — could legally possess small amounts of marijuana. 

“It says ‘any person.’ If you’re breathing, you can certainly be carrying it,” said Wolfe. “We have a lot of kids here in school. We’re trying to keep them away from drugs and any kind of drugs, whether it be marijuana or whatever.”

Representative Dike Sneed, of Painttown, pointed out that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana without providing a legal way to sell it will ensure the supply comes from black market dealers who are assuredly carrying around far more than 1.5 ounces at any given time. 

“The black market guys are going to be the ones making the profit off of it right now,” he said. 

Wachacha echoed those concerns, saying that the ordinance needed some work before he’d favor passing it. 

“If we move into the medicinal market so we can produce it from seed to sale I’m in support of that,” he said, “because I know exactly what we’re going to be getting.” 

Secretary of Agriculture Joey Owle, meanwhile, maintained that decriminalization now would be a net good and that fears about its ripple effects are overblown. 

“We’ve heard the fear-mongering over the years — ‘the sky’s going to fall, everything’s going to burn,’” he said. “To anticipate that there’s going to be this huge influx of everybody using cannabis and people gone wild I think is a bit disingenuous.”

The vote to table the legislation was unanimous. However, more discussion on the topic — and voting — is likely over the year to come. 

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