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Cherokee Leaders Decriminalize Marijuana in North Carolina

The Tribal Council moved ahead of state leaders, passing a new law decriminalizing marijuana and allowing medical use.

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Cannabis remains illegal for any purpose under state law in North Carolina, with one major exception: The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) has leaped ahead of the state's government, passing a new law that decriminalizes cannabis and allows people to use medical marijuana in the 100 square miles of tribal land known as the Qualla Boundary.

Tribal leaders decided in April. The land covers 56,000 acres, spanning five countries in western North Carolina. It's a sovereign nation where the Cherokee tribe sets its own laws.

The new law allows possession, for those 21 and older, of up to one ounce of cannabis and three-twentieths of an ounce of hashish.  Selling or growing marijuana remains illegal on tribal lands.

Cherokee Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed told The Cherokee One Feather that the Tribal Council decision "is a first step towards better meeting the needs of our citizens who use cannabis as a medicine. I join those citizens in applauding the Council for its historic, compassionate, and morally upright action."

RELATED: The Texas House of Representatives Has Passed New Cannabis Bill


The opioid crisis 

Joey Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the EBCI, and Jeremy Wilson, EBCI governmental affairs liaison, led the movement to change tribal law. Part of their motivation is an opioid crisis that has hit the Cherokee tribe particularly hard.

According to the Raleigh News and Observer, the Office of National Drug Control Policy named the Qualla Boundary one of 10 places across the country that are a high-intensity drug trafficking area. In 2019, federal authorities arrested 76 people and seized $1 million in opioids in a raid on the reservation.

Wilson said the Tribe has attempted to address the opioid epidemic but continues to see a climb in overdoses. He noted that cannabis gives people an alternative, which studies have shown people have taken advantage of in other places.

"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 told The Cherokee One Feather. "The Tribe has now opened the can of opportunity instead of kicking the can down the road."

RELATED: Marijuana Decriminalization Advances in Mexico's Congress


One step toward full legalization

In addition to helping fight the opioid crisis, the vote to decriminalize is the first planned step toward full medical marijuana legalization that could help bring the EBCI needed revenue, according to multiple media reports. Future plans call for creating a medical marijuana sales system, with dispensaries located on tribal lands. That would follow what is being done by the Paiute Tribe of Nevada, who recently visited the EBCI Tribal Council.  

The Paiute Tribe has a 15,800-square-foot NuMu Cannabis Marketplace on tribal land near downtown Las Vegas and a second dispensary near the Tribe's golf course near Snow Mountain north of Las Vegas. According to The Nevada Independent, they get up to 4,000 customers daily through storefronts and a 24-hour drive-through.

That sort of success could help the EBCI, which makes the lion's share of its revenue from a casino that now faces competition from the Catawba Indian Nation, which recently received approval to open a $273 million casino resort outside Charlotte.

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