CHEROKEE, N.C. -- Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in September on whether they want to legalize marijuana possession and sales on tribal lands for anyone 21 and older - not just for those seeking it for medical use that the North Carolina tribe had already authorized.
The Tribal Council agreed last week to place the question on the ballot during the tribe's Sept. 7 general election.
In 2021, the tribe decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana within the Eastern Band's 57,000-acre (23,000-hectare) Qualla Boundary. It also formed a medical marijuana structure that includes a tribe-created business to grow cannabis and sell it in a large dispensary that remains under construction - making it the first and only place to legally purchase marijuana in North Carolina.
The original plan was to issue medical cards for eligible adults to purchase from the dispensary. If the expansion of sales is approved in a referendum, it's unclear whether such cards will be needed. Tribal leaders suggested approval of the referendum question will lead to recreational marijuana sales, The Charlotte Observer reported.
"If our voters say no, they don't want adult use, then let's fly in there and get that medicinal," Council member Teresa McCoy, who offered the resolution last Thursday, told council colleagues. "If they say they do want adult use, then move forward. It's that simple. I'm not for or against it."
The dispensary was supposed to open by the fall, although that came into doubt after Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed vetoed $64 million in additional funds toward the project this spring.
The dispensary, to be located in the tribe's old bingo hall near Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort, initially will be open to tribal members only but would expand to other residents later, the Observer reported. As for medical marijuana, medical cards needed to purchase products also will be issued to tribal members initially. Card applications from all North Carolina residents are now being accepted.
Forrest Parker, general manager of Qualla Enterprises LLC, which was formed to run the tribe's for-profit cannabis business, told council members that permitting adult use would mean more customers and revenue for the tribe.
"Think how many more people will walk through the door," Parker said. "Fundamentally, we're prepared to handle it."
Council member Michael Stamper voted against putting the referendum on the ballot. He questioned whether the tribe could handle the expected influx of buyers.
"Right now, we're having issues funding the medical portion of it," Stamper said. "But I do fear that the immense support to push to get us into a deeper market that we don't really have the financials to support right now, would be overwhelming and could cause some fiscal issues down the road."
The referendum question also would mandate the council to develop legislation to regulate the broader market.
The federally recognized tribe has about 14,000 members, while 9,600 people live on Qualla Boundary, located about 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) west of Asheville.
An effort at the North Carolina legislature to legalize marijuana for medical use statewide has idled this year in the state House. The state Senate has approved the idea twice since June 2022.
The attached video is from previous story