EBCI inches toward adult marijuana use

Tribal Council made it clear it still plans on voting for recreational adult use of marijuana next month. File photo Tribal Council made it clear it still plans on voting for recreational adult use of marijuana next month. File photo

Adults may soon be able to purchase marijuana for recreational use from Cherokee’s new dispensary. 

At a work session last week, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian’s Tribal Council discussed several questions they had regarding a potential ordinance that would legalize sales of cannabis to any adult with a valid ID.

At the outset of the meeting, Chairman Mike Parker noted that he’d invited regional law enforcement leaders, including Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke, Jackson County Sheriff Doug Farmer, Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran, Sevier County Sheriff Michael Hodges and Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy but got no responses.

The work session ultimately led to the discussion of when a vote would be held by Tribal Council, and all indications point to the June meeting, about nine months after EBCI passed a referendum to approve adult use with about 70% of voters in favor.

The first question that arose regarded other legal “hemp” shops that sell cannabinoids such as CBD, Delta 8 and Delta 9. As written now, the ordinance would prohibit those businesses from selling their products unless they were licensed by the cannabis control board. Currently, the only licensed distributer is the Great Smoky Cannabis Company dispensary that opened on 4/20 and has since been serving customers with EBCI-issued medical cannabis cards.

Estimates for how many hemp shops exist on the Qualla Boundary ranged from four to seven.

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Discussion around such businesses included concerns about how products are tested and regulated to whether those establishments may compete with the tribe’s cannabis venture. Currently, the proposed fine for selling cannabis without a license is $5,000.

Although EBCI Attorney General Mike McConnell noted that it may be a more efficient use of time to address the hemp shops later, council members made it clear they wanted to discuss it right then and there.

While McConnell thought enforcement of any ordinance would fall to the Cherokee Police Department, others posited that the tribe’s alcohol law enforcement may be more appropriate.

“It would fall just perfectly for them,” said councilman and former CPD Chief Dike Sneed.

Ultimately, Tribal Council determined that they would have to regulate the hemp shops, to include testing and enforcement. When it came to the competition those businesses may provide, it was clear that most councilmen prioritized the success of Qualla Enterprises, the LLC behind the cannabis venture. Councilman Michael Stamper noted that those shops could market their products dishonestly in a way that could hurt both Qualla Enterprises and consumers.

ae Great Smoky Cannabis

Cherokee’s dispensary opened last month on 4/20. File photo

“What’s stopping people from saying we have the same product cheaper?” he asked.

 It was brought up that perhaps Tribal Council could ban the hemp shops altogether, considering at least 17 states have already banned Delta 8.

Former councilwoman Teresa McCoy advocated for letting the hemp shops continue to operate as they are. McCoy said she believes in free enterprise, but her real point was that Tribal Council needs to move forward with adult use and figure out the minute details later.

“What you should focus on today is moving forward as soon as possible,” she said, noting that 70% of voters — the same voters who elected Tribal Council — wanted recreational marijuana to be legalized, and it was high time to take the leap.

“Bring these questions up during business committee; that’s where your answers are,” she said. “In the meantime, leave those businesses alone. The more businesses come to this town the more levy we get, because you sure ain’t getting any gaming money, are you?”

Another question raised was, once recreational is legalized, what becomes of the medical program? The initial thought was to do away with it, but after some discussion, it was determined that there’s certainly still room for it. For one, a medical card can be used in other states where reciprocity applies. Tribal Council members also floated the idea of either offering a discount or waiving an excise tax for medical card holders.

And while Tribal Council seemed to lean toward outlawing tribal members growing their own marijuana plants, it was noted that it may be more practical for those with medical cards to grow their own. Also, for those who live off the boundary, it may make more sense for folks to grow their own to avoid transporting marijuana and risking criminal prosecution.

After discussing the specific questions, Councilman Richard French reiterated the point McCoy had made earlier, stating that he thought they would have a clean copy of the ordinance to discuss with the aim of voting on the ordinance in next month’s Tribal Council meeting.

“I’m getting calls every day saying ‘do what we ask youns to do,’” French said.

McCoy returned to the podium and further chastised council, saying that she, like French, thought councilmen would have the ordinance in front of them.

“If you don’t have your information in front of you, I don’t even know why youns are having this discussion,” she said.

However, council members were quick to push back against the urge to rush the ordinance, saying that when considering something of this magnitude, it’s important to take into account every angle before implementation.

“This was the plan, to come in here and discuss these issues so they could get a consensus from us,” Stamper said.

“We’re not kicking the can down the road,” he added.

Principal Chief Michele Hicks agreed.

“We’ve seen examples of rushing into some of our investments that are not paying off, so I think this is good,” he said.

Stamper added that he has every intention of bringing the ordinance to a vote next month.

“As long as we agree, I don’t see any reason to not bring it forward in June,” he said, a sentiment that seemed to be unanimously held.

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