In landslide vote, EBCI says yes to cannabis

A sign displayed outside Qualla Enterprises LLC headquarters  encourages voters to support legalizing recreational cannabis. Holly Kays photo A sign displayed outside Qualla Enterprises LLC headquarters encourages voters to support legalizing recreational cannabis. Holly Kays photo

In a decision that received national attention, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum question endorsing legalized recreational marijuana on the Qualla Boundary for adults 21 and older.

The referendum received more participation than anything else on the ballot — including the race for principal chief, the tribe’s top executive — with 70% of voters in favor. 

“To those of you who supported the Cannabis project, thank you for educating yourselves and voting!” Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy, who submitted the resolution Tribal Council passed to put the question on the ballot, wrote in a Facebook post after election results were released Sept. 7. “You listened, paid attention and you are ready for change in our own town!”

The Sept. 7 vote (see full results on page 8) does not immediately legalize cannabis use on tribal land, but rather sets the process in motion. The question tribal members voted on was: “Do you support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old, and require the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market?” After election results are certified in October, the Tribal Council seated following the election will have to change the law to align with the expressed will of the people.

If, that is, the referendum meets the 30% voter turnout threshold required for the results to be valid. The EBCI Board of Elections has not yet released voter turnout data, but the numbers look promising. A referendum vote in 2021 drew just under 2,900 votes, good for a turnout exceeding 40% — this year’s cannabis referendum received 3,521 votes for or against.

The cannabis referendum was the culmination of an effort that’s been underway for years. Back in 2015, a group calling itself Common Sense Cannabis convinced Tribal Council to approve funding for a feasibility study examining the possibly of legalized cannabis. That measure was vetoed, but the next year Tribal Council approved a resolution instructing the tribe’s attorney general to draft legislation for legalizing medical marijuana, but not recreational. A new feasibility study was approved in 2019, and in 2021 tribal government legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized  possession of small amounts of the drug.

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Following these decisions, a tribally owned business called Qualla Enterprises LLC was established to produce and sell cannabis. The business has been off to a slower than anticipated start due to disputes in Council chambers about start-up funding and accountability measures, but during those meetings General Manager Forrest Parker has expressed enthusiasm for the enterprise’s potential. He has also been blunt in his assessment that legalizing recreational use would multiply the business’s potential for profit. If distributed according to the per capita model used by the tribe’s casinos, he claimed during a July 13 meeting, such profit “would potentially far exceed year one through five of anything that we’ve ever seen before.”

Edwards pitches ‘Stop Pot’

On the Qualla Boundary, excitement about the burgeoning cannabis industry is high. But an Aug. 17 letter from U.S. Rep Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson), which was published in The Cherokee One Feather, elicited widespread anger ahead of Election Day.

“I proudly consider the tribe my friends, and I respect their tribal sovereignty,” he wrote. “But there are times when friends disagree, and I must do so regarding this question of legalizing recreational marijuana. The tribe’s rights should not infringe on the overall laws of our nation. Congress cannot prevent the EBCI from proceeding with this harmful referendum. But I am appealing to tribal members to vote against it.”

Calling cannabis a “common gateway drug,” Edwards cited the Centers for Disease Control and New England Journal of Medicine as saying that it can result in addiction, altered brain development and chronic psychosis disorders. If the measure were to pass, tribal lands would be the only place in North Carolina to legally purchase recreational marijuana, he wrote, likely resulting in people driving high as they leave the Qualla Boundary and spurring “drug tourism,” which would increase availability of “illicit, hard drugs for sale, and the criminal activity that would inevitably follow.” This could strain law enforcement resources “to a breaking point,” especially if dispensaries opened on outlying tribal lands in addition to the current facility in Cherokee, Edwards wrote.

Edwards warned the tribe that he planned to introduce legislation called the Stop Pot Act, which, were it to pass, could prove “very costly” should the tribe vote to legalize cannabis.  
“The Stop Pot Act will defund governments that ignore federal law,” he said. “I plan to move forward with this legislation regardless of the results of the tribal vote.”

Waves of backlash followed Edwards’ letter.

On Aug. 29, the Democratic Party chairs of Jackson, Swain, Cherokee and Transylvania counties sent a letter to local media outlets decrying Edwards’ “attempt to coerce the people of the EBCI into making the decision he wants them to make,” saying that, as a sovereign nation, the tribe has the right to govern itself “without federal or state interference.” The next day, Principal Chief Richard Sneed responded with a letter thanking the party for its words of support. Both letters were published in The Smoky Mountain News.

“In my estimation, Rep. Edwards has overstepped his authority and has made a major political blunder as a federal Representative; a non-Indian, elected official telling a sovereign tribal nation how they ought to handle their business,” Sneed wrote.

In comments to Tribal Council during its meeting Thursday, Sept. 7, which was also Election Day, Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy went a step further. She said Edwards’ words “pointing out one particular race of people” made him a racist and charged that his words were tantamount to election interference. Tribal Council should consider banishing him from tribal lands, she said. 

“I think that he is not a friend to this tribe, and I think that the tribe needs to make that clear,” she said.

It remains unclear how the Stop Pot Act, which Edwards introduced Sept. 1 as H.R. 5323, would impact the tribe if enacted. The bill text states that 10% of funds apportioned to any state that has legalized the “purchase or public possession of marijuana for recreational purposes” should be withheld, but it makes no mention of tribes.

Currently, the bill has only one cosponsor — Rep. Gregory Murphy (R-NC) — and awaits action from the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, within the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Neither Edwards nor his office returned requests for comment.

Enthusiasm and enforcement

Based on Election Day interviews with voters stopping at Cherokee’s only grocery store, Edwards’ threat has not dampened enthusiasm for the measure. One woman, who said she was in too much of a hurry to stop for an interview, nevertheless shouted, “I voted for recreational,” giving a thumbs up as she slid into her car.

Of eight voters interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News, only one said they would vote against the referendum.

“I probably would be for it for medical, but recreational I’m not too big,” said a 60-year-old Wolfetown man. “We’ve already got people walking around here kind of aimless.”

Two people expressed support for the cannabis referendum despite opposing a separate measure that would allow hotels and restaurants to sell mixed drinks.

“The cannabis is gonna help our people,” said a 55-year-old Wolfetown voter. “And the mixed drink thing is not gonna help our people.”

It remains to be seen how the tribe will choose to implement the decision its citizens expressed Sept. 7, or what that timeline may look like. David Wijewickrama, chair of the EBCI Cannabis Control Board, said the ball is in Tribal Council’s court now. The chapter establishing the board he leads is specifically titled “Medical Marijuana.”

“The tribe is going to have to rewrite the regulation, and they’re going to have to tell us what the scope of our work is,” he said. “We don’t get to tell them, ‘This is what we want to do.’ They tell us, ‘This is what your job is going to be.’” 

Another variable is what the state may decide regarding legalization of cannabis, and how that could impact logistics of the tribal operation. Qualla Enterprises’ farm is located on the Cooper’s Creek property, which is on tribal trust land but requires traveling a short distance through Swain County land to drive to the main Qualla Boundary. This makes the logistics of distribution challenging for the fledgling company.

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran acknowledges the tribe’s right, as a sovereign nation, to legalize cannabis if it wishes. But at the same time, he said, “I took an oath to uphold the laws in the state of North Carolina.”

That includes laws making marijuana an illegal substance.

Cody White, associate counsel for the EBCI Attorney General’s Office representing the Cherokee Indian Police Department, said the tribe is still working out how best to transport the product.

“We are going to ensure that we are not violating any laws in what we’re about to do,” he said.

As to exactly what it is the tribe is about to do, White said, that decision is “a work in progress.” 

“We told the sheriff that I would be in constant contact with him to update him on those things,” White said.

Qualla Enterprises did not return multiple requests for comment on this story, nor has it granted requests dating back to March for a tour of its facilities.

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