Go inside North Carolina’s only marijuana dispensary as its doors open for first time

Hundreds of members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina stood patiently in line Wednesday night to get a sneak preview of their tribe’s long-planned medical marijuana dispensary superstore.

Sales won’t start until later this year, tribal officials told The Charlotte Observer at the dispensary just before the doors opened at 5 p.m. But seeing the huge turnout for the three-hour open house, they expect it to be a tremendous generator of jobs and economic success for the tribe.

“It’s definitely surpassed what we were expecting,” said Jared Panther, a 25-year-old plant health technician at the tribe’s grow operation who greeted visitors at the event.

“A lot of people are curious about what we’re doing, and a lot of people are coming out to show support for what we’re doing, what we love to do,” Panther said. “We’re creating opportunity in a lot of ways.”

The dispensary is in the tribe’s massive, refurbished old bingo hall on U.S. 19 near Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, 46 miles west of Asheville in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Tribal officials held the open house as EBCI members prepare to vote Thursday on legalizing adult-use cannabis.

Products on display at the Great Smoky Cannabis Company on Wednesday, September 6, 2023 during an open house.

“Great Smoky Cannabis Company, est. 2021” read small signs that greeted visitors at the entrance to the dispensary. The name of the company also appeared in smaller lettering in the Cherokee language.

A lime-green banner on the U.S. 19 side of the forest-green, single story building urged drivers to “Vote Yes! for Adult-Use.”

Thursday’s vote would legalize use of marijuana on tribal land beyond already-approved use and controlled sale of medical cannabis.

The tribe has grown and cultivated $30 million of cannabis on its 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary in the western part of the state, Forrest Parker, general manager of Qualla Enterprises LLC, told the Observer at the dispensary Wednesday. Qualla Enterprises is the tribe’s for-profit cannabis subsidiary.

Fully mature cannabis plants hang upside down in a dry room on a farm owned and operated by Qualla Enterprises LLC in Cherokee, NC. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians held an open house at its marijuana dispensary on Wednesday night, Sept. 6, 2023.

EBCI originally planned to issue regulated medical cards to eligible adults to buy from the dispensary. The retail operation is the first and only place to legally purchase marijuana in North Carolina.

The tribe formed Qualla Enterprises to harvest marijuana and turn it into product at the dispensary. In a visit to the dispensary Wednesday by the Observer, reporters found the building fully renovated with carpeted floors and glass cases that will display cannabis product including edibles.

Bakery and ‘budtenders’

A bakery near the entrance of the dispensary offered visitors samples of uninfused cookies and other treats. Once the dispensary sells product, by December, officials said, visitors will then go to another area of the dispensary to discuss with a “budtender” what products might most suit their needs.

Even if EBCI members approve adult use Thursday, some people needing higher-potency cannabis for their medical conditions would need to get a medical card from the EBCI Cannabis Control Board formed by the tribe, officials said Wednesday.

Discussion in July by tribe leaders suggest some are expecting the referendum could lead to recreational marijuana sales by the dispensary. The referendum going to voters says adult use would apply to anyone 21 and older. No language in the referendum limits adult use to tribal members.

“It’s for the tribe,” Qualla Enterprises production manager James Bradley said in March as he held a marijuana leaf. Bradley planted the first cannabis seed for Qualla Enterprises, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ for-profit marijuana subsidiary, on July 9, 2022, in a seven-gallon pot. The plant grew in the glass greenhouse on the property.
The medical marijuana farm owned and operated by Qualla Enterprises, LLC sits on a piece of land with a clear view of the Great Smoky Mountains. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians held an open house at its marijuana dispensary on Wednesday night, Sept. 6, 2023.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign self-governed nation and a federally-recognized tribe. The tribe and individuals are eligible for U.S. funding in a variety of ways, including recent COVID-19 American Rescue Plan allocations.

Job fair at dispensary

Kyle Lewis attended the open house to apply for a job. He and his wife, Mijanou Lewis, who is Cherokee, are building a home in Qualla Boundary and moving from Ohio, where they raised five sons.

Lewis has decades of horticulture experience, growing ginseng and medicinal herbs. He also has seven years of experience in the cannabis business in Michigan, Colorado and Ohio.

“I was like this would be a great opportunity to possibly help and be a part of it,” Lewis said. “It was really important for me to just be a part of it and see if I could in any way bring my experience and what I know and what I have and what I’ve learned to the table.”

Carolyn West attended the event with her faithful and calm German shepherd, Mr Daniels, and thought: “This is an amazing turnout.”

West, chairman of the Qualla Enterprises LLC board, also thought about her people.

“Qualla Enterprises acknowledges the Cherokee core values of maintaining their strong connection with the land and honoring their past.

“Since time immemorial, the Cherokee people use medicine from the earth,” she said. “And we have always been a matrilineal society. We have many females who work on the farm. They trim, they do production, they’re doing amazing work.

“I think they’re excited that we can possibly be making history, being the first tribe (and government) in North Carolina to legalize marijuana. And this product is safe, it’s tested, it’s going to be in child-proof containers, the safest means possible is what we’re doing here.”