For North Carolina, where both recreational and medical cannabis are both illegal under the state’s law, the outcome clears the way for the Tar Heel State’s first dispensary.
The Associated Press reported that unofficial results of the vote on Thursday showed “that 70% of voters said ‘yes’…in a referendum that opens the door to the western North Carolina reservation being the first location in the state where pot for recreational use can be legally purchased.”
“The question put to a vote by the Eastern Band tribal council asked whether members supported legalizing the possession and use of cannabis by people at least 21 years old, and requiring the council to develop legislation to regulate a market,” according to the Associated Press.
Local news station WLOS said that the matter will now go to the Tribal Council “to pass legislation governing the sale of marijuana,” and that if the council approves, “it would make the reservation the first place in North Carolina where marijuana could be legally possessed and used.”
For the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the vote has been two years in the making. In 2021, the tribe passed an ordinance that decriminalized pot on its land. That same year, the tribe also passed an ordinance legalizing medical cannabis.
“The Council’s approval of a medical marijuana ordinance is a testament to the changing attitudes toward legal marijuana and a recognition of the growing body of evidence that supports cannabis as medicine, particularly for those with debilitating conditions like cancer and chronic pain,” Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said following the vote in 2021.
The tribe has been planning to convert an old bingo hall into a “cannabis superstore.” But there have been disputes over the cost of the project.
In May, Sneed wrote in a post on Facebook that he had “vetoed the Tribal Council’s recent approval of the final $64 million for the project because the original proposal said the entire project would be completed for $50 million.”
“The fact that this project’s original cost for an outdoor grow, an indoor grow and an indoor dispensary was $50m, and we are now being told it is $95m, demonstrates that there is an immediate need for a full accounting of the money that has been expended to date,” Sneed wrote at the time.
The Charlotte Observer reported then: “Sneed told French he ‘fully supports cannabis, both medical and adult use.’ He also is ‘encouraged and inspired’ by tribal workers at the growing operation at Cooper’s Creek on the tribe’s Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, he added. The operation is run by Qualla Enterprises LLC, the tribe’s for-profit medical cannabis arm. Yet, Sneed told French, ‘I am very troubled by the lack of accountability for the managing of the business side of the operation. The current projected cost is almost 100% over budget as compared to the original RFP projected cost.’ RFP stands for ‘request for proposals.’”
Thursday’s vote marks a significant development in the reform effort. According to WLOS, the referendum passed 2,464 to 1,057.
Some outside the tribe have raised objections to the effort. Earlier this month, Chuck Edwards, a Republican congressman who represents a district in western North Carolina, introduced a bill to “withhold 10 percent of federal highway funds for governments that violate federal law under the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits recreational marijuana and classifies it as a Schedule I drug.”
The legislation was explicitly aimed at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ referendum.
“The laws of any government should not infringe on the overall laws of our nation, and federal funds should not be awarded to jurisdictions that willfully ignore federal law,” Edwards said in a statement after introducing the bill. “During a time when our communities are seeing unprecedented crime, drug addiction, and mental illness, the Stop Pot Act will help prevent even greater access to drugs and ease the strain placed on our local law enforcement and mental health professionals who are already stretched thin.”
In a press release, Edwards’ office noted that the “Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) will vote on September 7 whether to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana on tribal lands,” and that if the referendum were to pass, “the Qualla Boundary will be the only place in North Carolina to buy marijuana legally for recreational use.”
The congressman’s office noted that the bill “does not apply to jurisdictions that authorize medical use of marijuana when prescribed by a licensed medical professional.”