On Thursday September 7th, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) passed a referendum to legalize adult-use cannabis, becoming the first jurisdiction in North Carolina to do so. Tribal members were asked on a yes-or-no form whether they supported legalizing possession and use of the plant for people age 21 and over, and if EBCI’s Tribal Council should be required to develop legislation to regulate the market.

North Carolina's Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians Votes In Favor Of Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization

As reported by Marijuana Moment, results from the EBCI’s Board of Elections show that tribe members voted in favor of legalization by a margin of 70 percent. The referendum itself doesn’t legalize cannabis automatically, but prepares tribal leadership to follow the majority vote when they eventually make a formal decision. According to the Tribal Council, once the market is in place, sales of cannabinoid products would be available to all consumers of legal age, regardless of tribal membership.

Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians' Cannabis Action Opposes North Carolina Congressman Chuck Edwards's Stop Pot Act

The move, in addition to serving as an assertion of the EBCI’s autonomy, comes at a pivotal time in North Carolina’s history with cannabis. Several of the state’s prominent Republicans had previously warned the tribe against legalization, including United States Congressman Chuck Edwards, who even went as far as writing an op-ed in the tribal news outlet, Cherokee One Feather, claiming that it would be “irresponsible” for the tribe to legalize the plant - “and I intend to stop it.”

Edwards introduced the “Stop Pot Act” to Congress on September 2nd, a bill which would aim to cut 10 percent in federal transportation funding from both U.S. states and indigenous tribes with adult-use cannabis programs. Most have predicted the legislative measure will fail, but it provides yet another opportunity for dangerous misinformation and stigma surrounding the plant to reach the public. The bill is co-sponsored by Edwards’s fellow North Carolina GOP Congressman Gregory Murphy, and supported by the Christian Action League and the anti-cannabis group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Kevin Sabet, founder of SAM, earlier this year testified in a Senate hearing on cannabis banking, contributing his staunch prohibitionist views that among other details, misrepresented research about cannabis and mental health and conflated myths about legal, regulated cannabis products with the toxicity of synthetic marijuana.

EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed has criticized Rep. Edwards’s anti-cannabis actions. He called the Congressman’s op-ed “a big misstep,” and in an interview with Marijuana Moment, said he believed pushback from Edwards and others may have emboldened tribal members to support the measure.

“The worst thing that a non-Indian elected official can do is tell a sovereign, federally-recognized Indian tribe how they ought to handle their business,” Sneed stated. Regarding the “Stop Pot Act,” he added, “I can tell you that, in D.C. right now, a bill like that would go nowhere.”

Will The State Of North Carolina Follow The Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians' Example For Cannabis Legalization?

The EBCI Tribal Council already passed regulations for medical cannabis in 2021, and opened registration to North Carolina residents in June 2023. Adult-use legalization on the tribe’s 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary area is expected to eventually bring in millions of dollars of revenue. However, delays over details such as cannabis transportation, lab testing and banking have kept the tribe’s cannabis company Qualla Enterprises from making a single sale to date. Sneed, attributing the issues to a non-native vendor’s “lack of foresight,” predicted that the tribe’s governing board would soon be taking action to remedy the issues.

Statements released by Qualla Enterprises reiterated the tribe’s and company’s belief that the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee will eventually follow the EBCI’s lead on cannabis legalization. According to Sneed, multiple North Carolina lawmakers and political leaders have shown an interest in the tribe’s medical cannabis operations at the very least. Though efforts to establish a medical cannabis program in North Carolina at the state level have had strong support, a Senate-backed legalization bill failed in the House this July.

Meanwhile, Rob Pero, founder and CEO of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association (ICIA), cheered the EBCI’s efforts with its own referendum, as a symbol of what might portend the future of tribal sovereignty on the issue of legalization. He noted in an email, “How EBCI has approached the referendum and determined their course of action is a great example of what sovereignty can look like when it’s done in a good way… This is just one small aspect of their government, but this is a powerful opportunity to showcase what that actually means for government-to-government relations in an emerging industry.”

For more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the cannabis industry, visit ebci.com.

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Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Richard Sneed

Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association

Mary Jane Oatman

Rob Pero




Featured image: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians flag, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons