On 100 square miles tucked in the western most corner of North Carolina, pot is now legal — with some limitations.
The tribal council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted Thursday to legalize the possession of up to one ounce of medicinal marijuana on tribal land, also known as the Qualla Boundary. Most of the tribe’s 13,400 members live on the reservation, which encompasses 56,000 acres and spans five counties in Western North Carolina.
Marijuana is still illegal elsewhere in the state, but the tribe operates as a sovereign nation and sets its own laws.
“Today’s decision by Tribal Council to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis by persons 21 or older is a first step towards better meeting the needs of our citizens who use cannabis as a medicine,” Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed told The Cherokee One Feather. “I join those citizens in applauding the Council for its historic, compassionate and morally upright action.”
The ordinance changes the wording of the Cherokee Code for controlled substances by legalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or three-twentieths of an ounce of hashish for individuals at least 21 years old. But it’s still illegal to sell or grow pot on tribal land.
In passing the ordinance, the council cited a growing consensus among tribal members in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. They noted the drug’s uses to treat epilepsy, seizures, cancer and chronic pain, as well as the potential to decrease dependence on opioids.
The Qualla Boundary has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic in recent years.
Jeremy Wilson, the tribe’s governmental affairs liaison, told Cherokee One Feather the council’s decision will bring “peace of mind to those who rely on cannabis for their medicinal needs.”
“What marijuana has proven is to be a natural form of medicine that can take care of chronic pain and can actually help people reverse their addiction from hard drugs,” he said, according to the newspaper. “Now that we are facing times for need of new revenue streams, cannabis fulfills that quest.”
The tribe’s casinos are “the biggest economic engine for the Cherokee,” Spectrum Local News reported. Up until recently, they were the only casinos permitted by the state.
But the Catawba Indian Nation recently received approval to open a $273 million casino resort in Kings Mountain, just outside of Charlotte — meaning the Cherokee could bface a cut in their revenue stream.
“Getting us to a place and a legal framework to where we can have a dispensary here to supply the medical marijuana that the public would need and create a new revenue line for us,” Wilson told Spectrum earlier this year.
The push for marijuana legalization within the tribe dates to at least 2019, with the creation of a Cannabis Commission co-chaired by Wilson and Secretary of Agriculture Joey Owle, Blue Ridge Public Radio reported. But it wasn’t until the end of October that the council passed a resolution that paved the way for legislation to decriminalize small amounts, according to Indian Country Today.
A first version of the ordinance that didn’t include an age restriction was tabled in April, Smoky Mountain News reported. But council members indicated a reworked version with clearer specifications would likely pass in the near future.
The ordinance that council members voted to approve Thursday now has to be ratified by the council chairman and the chief before it officially becomes law, which should happen in the coming weeks.