Licensing Blog

North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vote Yes to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vote Yes to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

On September 7th, 2023, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians passed a referendum in favor of legalizing marijuana for adults twenty-one (21) years and older – the only jurisdiction in the “Tar Heel State” to commit to such marijuana reform. The passage of adult-use comes just two (2) years after the tribe approved medical marijuana, as well as decriminalization of marijuana in 2021.

The tribe’s enrolled members voted as to whether “[Y]ou support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old, and required the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market?” According to the unofficial results posted by the tribe’s Board of Elections, members approved the referendum by a margin of 70% to 30%. Upon official approval by tribal leaders, marijuana sales will be open to all adults twenty-one (21) years and older, regardless of tribal membership.

Such decision has not gone unnoticed by North Carolina representatives, specifically Republican Representative Chuck Edwards (NC-11) who introduced a bill just six (6) days before the tribe’s scheduled vote, calling it the “Stop Pot Act.” This bill directly targets the tribe by threatening to withhold 10% of what a government or tribe generally receive in annual federal highway funding if they permit recreational marijuana use and sales. Prior to introducing his Stop Pot Act, Congressman Edwards published an opinion piece in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper addressing that his proposed bill “will defund governments that ignore federal law” regarding marijuana sales and use in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act – even though the bill would not prohibit funding to jurisdictions that authorize medical marijuana when recommended by a licensed physician. In response, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed issued a letter stating that Congressman Edwards “has overstepped his authority and has made a major political blunder as a federal Representative; a non-Indian, elected official telling a sovereign tribal nation how they ought to handle their business.”

Presently, the Stop Pot Act is endorsed by the Christian Action League and Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action (“SAM Action”). According to SAM Action’s CEO, Dr. Kevin Sabet, “Congressman Edwards’ ‘Stop Pot Act’ holds states accountable for violating federal law and undermining the authority of the FDA and the DEA.” Both SAM Action and Representative Edwards allege that the legalization movement has worsened the country’s mental health and addiction crisis, as well as resulted in an increase in marijuana-related driving crashes and death. As stated by Congressman Edwards, “[i]t also means many would be leaving the reservation and hitting the road high,” as well as the “possibility of ‘drug tourism.’”

Even though the tribe is facing opposition, its leaders are not shying away from moving forward with their plans to expand the tribe’s economy through implementing a marijuana program. According to a Cherokee One Feather report, “[g]ross revenue from medical cannabis starts at $206 million and approaches $578 million by year five.  If adult use were legalized, revenue could conservatively reach $385 million in the first year and exceed $800 million by year five.” Further, it would create four hundred (400) new and well-paying jobs at the reservation, as currently, 84% of the cultivation employees are tribal members.

Unfortunately, the tribe has faced several obstacles in its attempts at developing its state-of-the-art facilities, as well as transportation protocols and funding. In July, Principal Chief Sneed vetoed the $64 million in additional funds to further fund the tribe’s larger than life dispensary, even though it was anticipated to open this Fall to sell its nearly $30 million worth of product already grown. Moreover, part of the tribe’s production procedure involves transporting medical marijuana along a short stretch of state-owned roadway, which can cause future issues, especially with the tribe’s current actions being viewed under a microscope by opponents in the state’s legislature. Further, the tribe’s approved testing laboratory is months behind schedule, even though it is essential to the tribe’s supply chain to ensure such products are of high quality and safe for use.

Although the tribe’s operations are behind schedule, it will be the only place in North Carolina – and for most of the state’s bordering neighbors – where adults twenty-one (21) years and older can legally use marijuana. Many are hopeful with the significant increase of the tribe’s revenue and job creation in its implementation of an adult-use market it will spark an interest in the state legislature to work on pushing marijuana reform policy through the legislature, mainly through the House of Representatives, to finally instill a state-run program.

If you are interested in discussing your options in entering North Carolina’s future marijuana industry, contact us today!