Smokies' first dispensary to open: Cherokee's long-awaited marijuana venture to finally generate some green

Smokies' first dispensary to open: Cherokee's long-awaited marijuana venture to finally generate some green

The path to cannabis legalization on the Qualla Boundary has been riddled with roadblocks, some of which the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians painstakingly navigated around, some of which it has bulldozed. 

Now, everything will come to a head on 4/20 when Qualla Enterprise’s new marijuana dispensary will host its grand opening and begin selling product to anyone with a valid medicinal marijuana card issued by the tribe.

However, while many on the Qualla Boundary are celebrating this monumental step forward, there are still lingering questions over how local, state and federal officials may try to hamper efforts to grow the cannabis enterprise, as well as how quickly Tribal Council will move to finalize the legalization of recreational adult marijuana use.

Although for a while the projected opening date was sometime in late 2023, there were a few delays, and 4/20 seemed like the natural choice.

“It’s the national cannabis holiday, right?” Lee Griffin, human resources director for Qualla Enterprises, said at a February Tribal Council work session. “Across the country, it’s the biggest revenue date annually” for cannabis.

Qualla Enterprises confirmed that date in a statement, adding that the grand opening will begin at 10 a.m.

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“Our world-class dispensary is a seed-to-sale operation. Upon opening, this facility promises to revolutionize the landscape of medical cannabis on the Qualla Boundary,” the statement reads. “With a commitment to quality, compassion, and education, Great Smoky Cannabis Co. aims to provide patients with safe and regulated access to medicinal cannabis products. The new dispensary will open with high-quality tested products — including flower, vape products, edibles, topicals, and more — carefully curated to meet the diverse needs of patients. Product selection will continue to grow and evolve each month.”

The dispensary is located at 91 Bingo Loop Road in Cherokee.

While there was hope that sales would also be open to anyone over 21 who just wanted to walk in and purchase pot, that will not be the case. There will be a Tribal Council work session just two days before the opening of the dispensary during which adult use will be discussed, but a joint statement from tribal leadership published in the Cherokee One Feather was issued late last month that sought to address questions about the status of recreational use come 4/20.  

“With 70 percent of voters in favor, we acknowledge the significance of this vote,” the statement reads. “Since then, we have approached this responsibility seriously so that any legislation concerning cannabis is practical and thoughtful. This is a process that cannot be rushed; there are numerous factors to consider so that we are able to make the best decisions as these are decisions that can have significant long-term impacts on our tribe. Work is continuing to progress with the executive and legislative branches, and we are committed to make sure that any administrative efforts and legislation concerning recreational cannabis use is implemented responsibly. We will continue to provide updates as we move forward.”

The path to pot

EBCI showed interest marijuana legalization in 2015, when Tribal Council unanimously approved a feasibility study that sought to determine whether medicinal or recreational cannabis use, as well as industrial hemp, would benefit the tribe; however, then-Principal Chief Patrick Lambert vetoed that measure due to concerns with recreational use.

Next, in 2017, EBCI began growing before eventually expanding to marijuana.

In 2021, Tribal Council voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to stop testing Housing Improvement Program residents and applicants for the drug. Later that year, the tribe approved the use of medicinal cannabis and started accepting applications for medicinal marijuana cards in July 2023. At that time, a tribal cannabis advisory commission was established to study cannabis-related issues and make regulatory recommendations.

The cannabis control board accepts applications from North Carolina residents over the age of 21. The cost for issuance to residents is $100 and $50 for enrolled EBCI members. There are several approved conditions, including anxiety disorder, eating disorders and cancer. Applications can be submitted at .

Just one month before the medicinal cards were issued, EBCI voters overwhelmingly approved the legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana. The question on the ballot was simple: “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?” Seventy percent of people who voted were in favor of the referendum. A resolution that would legalize cannabis use for adults was introduced during a Tribal Council meeting on Jan. 4 of this year.

The tribe expects its cannabis industry to quickly evolve into a cash cow. Neither medicinal nor recreational cannabis is currently legal in North Carolina, Tennessee or South Carolina, and in Virginia and Georgia, only medicinal marijuana is legal. Qualla Enterprises anticipates employing somewhere around 500 people and making enough money by fiscal year 2026 to send the tribe $260 million in profits. It’s also expected to make money for the tribe through generating a tribal levy, akin to a sales tax. 

Getting the green

But funding for Qualla Enterprises has been uncertain almost every step of the way, with a number of Tribal Council votes to provide stopgap financing to keep the operation afloat while waiting for the revenue to come from the opening of the dispensary. Between March 2022 and December 2023, the tribe invested $34 million in its cannabis enterprise, but officials claimed that number fell short of the $50 million the company asked for over two years ago.

Upon winning the election and taking office last fall, Principal Chief Michell Hicks introduced a resolution that would have allowed Qualla Enterprises to take a $19 million from the tribe to be repaid with interest — a loan that avoided potential violation of federal law for using casino revenue to fund a federally outlawed venture. A month later, he requested approval for $3 million in stopgap funding, a request council approved.

news Chief Michell Hicks

Chief Michell Hicks.

A Smoky Mountain News story from January notes that to get the rest of the $19 million, that resolution said Qualla Enterprises would have to provide a final independent auditor’s report, product transportation plan and product testing plan, and complete “good faith negotiations” on the management agreement with vendor Sovereign Solutions Carolina. The story further notes that the company appeared to have met those requirements, though no details were ever made public.

Can’t get there from here

Marijuana has been grown on a 22.5-acre farm in the Cooper’s Creek area. Qualla Enterprises has previously said it has grown at least 45 strains and claims to have tens of millions of dollars in product in its inventory. However, there’s a hiccup when it comes to transportation. To get from the farm to the dispensary, shipments must cross out of the Qualla Boundary through Swain County. Although Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran has been relatively quiet on the issue, he did provide WLOS television with a statement that alludes to the fact he may try to stop those shipments.

news Curtis Cochran 2018 mug

Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

“I have had several conversations with the chief, tribal attorney general, and others about the transportation of the cannabis from the Coopers Creek location back onto tribal property,” he said in that statement. “I stated that until North Carolina changes the law, that it is still illegal to possess or transport marijuana on the highway.”

Cochran didn’t respond to multiple requests for interviews from SMN.

While District Attorney Ashley Welch, whose office would prosecute marijuana possession or trafficking cases, didn’t answer questions posed in an email from SMN, she did provide a statement.

news ashleywelch

DA Ashley Welch.

“The mission, duty and privilege of the 43rd Prosecutorial District is to enforce state laws,” the statement reads. “We do not pick certain laws to enforce and ignore others. On April 20, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will open a marijuana, cannabis dispensary on tribal land. Tribes have inherent authority as sovereign nations, subject only to federal, not state, law. We respect tribal sovereignty, and we respect the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ right to enact tribal laws. In North Carolina, the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana remains illegal, and we will continue to enforce state law off Qualla Boundary.”

One solution that sticks out that has been brought up at Tribal Council as the likely winner is the use of some form of aerial transportation — likely drones — to move product, but not many details, even potential routes, were discussed.

A challenge to sovereignty

Other elected officials have been more direct with their language when voicing displeasure with the tribe’s cannabis venture. In September of last year, Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) introduced the Stop Pot Act in Congress, which would have withheld federal funding from states and tribes that permit the use of recreational marijuana. In that release, Edwards specifically noted that the background of the bill was tied directly to EBCI’s vote to allow recreational adult use of marijuana and the fact that its passage would make the Qualla Boundary the only place in North Carolina to allow recreational adult use.

news chuck edwards

Rep. Chuck Edwards. File photo

“The laws of any government should not infringe on the overall laws of our nation, and federal funds should not be awarded to jurisdictions that willfully ignore federal law,” Edwards said in a release. “During a time when our communities are seeing unprecedented crime, drug addiction, and mental illness, the Stop Pot Act will help prevent even greater access to drugs and ease the strain placed on our local law enforcement and mental health professionals who are already stretched thin.”

This came on the heels of a column Edwards wrote for the Cherokee One Feather that used even stronger language.

“Here in our beloved mountains, we are already facing unprecedented crime, drug addiction and mental illness. I can’t stand by and condone even greater access to drugs to poison more folks in WNC, not to mention having even more impaired drivers on our roads,” Edwards wrote.

“To allow our citizens to travel only a few miles to buy and use this common gateway drug — which the CDC and the New England Journal of Medicine have said can result in short- and long-term danger of addiction, altered brain development, chronic psychosis disorders and others — would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it,” he continued. 

In a letter from North Carolina’s Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, several questions were raised surrounding the legality and logistics of the tribe’s cultivation, processing, transportation and sales of marijuana. The questions in that letter were posed to a number of elected and appointed leaders, including DA Welch and Sheriff Cochran, as well as several state and federal officials.

“As our nation is facing an unprecedented drug crisis that is harming our communities, it is vital to learn what measures your departments and agencies are taking to uphold current federal and state laws,”  the senators wrote.

“This matter raises multiple questions on how North Carolina communities will be kept safe. Under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. §801 et seq.)) marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance. The CSA prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensation, and possession of marijuana. Federal anti-money laundering (AML) laws criminalize the handling of proceeds derived from various unlawful activities, including marijuana sales in violation of the CSA,” the senators continued. 

The letter features a markedly different tone from Tillis’ remarks on recreational marijuana during a visit to Canton in August of last year when Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke brought up the topic.

“I think, you know, the bell has rung when you have red states and blue states [legalizing cannabis],” Tillis said at that time. “I for one think that we should look at it like tobacco. We should regulate the crops, the FDA should have a role to play in terms of potency, ingredients, delivery methods, we should have a federal excise tax on it and we should have serious consequences, like the tobacco industry, if you run out of line.”

In a story from Spectrum 1, Sheyahshe Littledave, spokeswoman for EBCI’s Office of the Principal Chief, directly addressed the letter in a statement that claimed it was “replete with misinformation and inflammatory language that promote fear and misunderstanding,” adding that EBCI has attempted to enter the medical marijuana field “with careful and thorough consideration of all the legal and policy implications of this industry.”

“The Eastern Band is establishing a model for safety and responsibility in an industry that is already legal in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and tribal lands across the United States,” Littledave said. “It’s a shame that Senator Tillis and Senator Budd did not respectfully communicate their concerns directly to Eastern Band Cherokee leaders, instead choosing a frontal attack on Cherokee sovereignty.”

The letter marked only one salvo in an ongoing feud Tillis has had with the tribe, as well as sovereign Indian nations across the country, including his opposition to the “Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial and Sacred Site Act,” which directs Department of the Interior to take 40 acres of land in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, and return it to the Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes to be maintained as a memorial and sacred site.

During its April 4 meeting, Tribal Council approved a resolution in support of that legislation that notes that EBCI leaders recently met with leaders of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, along with other leaders of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and the Coalition of Large Tribes.

“Senator Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) is blocking both the Wounded Knee Sacred Site Act and the EBCI’s Historical Lands Act, to force tribes to give up their opposition to the efforts of the Lumbee group in North Carolina to become a federally-recognized tribe,” the resolution reads.

“Senator Tillis is also blocking other federal legislation important to federally-recognized Indian Nations as punishment for insisting that groups of people who claim to be American Indians and tribes should be required to go through the existing regulatory process developed by the Department of Interior over many years, to achieve federal recognition, and that these groups should not be allowed to circumvent this process through federal legislation,” it continues. 

The fault line for this ongoing feud is likely Tillis’ support of the Lumbees in their quest to gain full recognition as a tribe entitled to federal benefits.

“The Lumbees, a group whose members falsely claim to be Cherokee, should be accountable for continuing to push Senator Tillis to hold hostage the interests of federally-recognized tribes,” the resolution reads. “The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians calls on federally-recognized tribal nations across the United States to oppose Senator Tillis’ blockade of Indian legislation, that he has imposed by his own personal preference and for an improper purpose.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Patrick Lambert's 2015 veto was unanimously overturned, but that is not the case.

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