North Carolina Tribe Votes to Legalize Recreational Cannabis

America’s native Indian tribe known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have voted to legalize adult-use cannabis in their territory. The historical vote makes their tribal land the first territory to legalize marijuana in a state where both adult-use and medical-use marijuana are prohibited based on the state’s law. 


The voting outcome made the Tar Heel State ready to host the first dispensary. Unofficial results published by The Associated Press confirm that 70% of voters said yes on Thursday in a referendum that could make western North Carolina the first place where legal weed for recreational purposes can be bought. 


North Carolina still criminalizes marijuana


To date, possessing marijuana in North Carolina is criminal under the state’s law. Anyone found in possession of even the smallest quantity of marijuana breaks the law and could face incarceration. The state government still considers marijuana a class 6 substance and it is prohibited to possess, use, grow, or sell cannabis in the state. Under the North Carolina Controlled Substance Act, those found breaking this law could be jailed for 30 days up to 1 year. The law allows a fine of up to $500, or the convict is required to pay a fine and serve a jail term at the same time. 


The Eastern Band tribe gets the authority to regulate cannabis


Voting yes for North Carolina marijuana for adult use gave the sovereign tribal nation authority to control marijuana production and use across the Qualla Boundary where the tribe owns a 57,000-acre reservation. During the referendum, the tribal members were asked whether they supported the legalization of possessing and using cannabis for anyone 21 years old and above. 


The vote also required the council to create rules that would help regulate the marijuana market in the territory. In June, the 12 members of the Tribal Council voted to add the question on the ballot to test if the tribal members were willing to support legalization. The Tribal Council Chairman Richard French said the council vote helped them determine if they would get support from the people. 


Any adult from 21 years and above will be free to buy marijuana regardless of their tribe


The North Carolina marijuana vote was done by one tribe but will benefit all citizens in the region. Any adult 21 years old and above will be free to buy and possess marijuana according to law regardless of which tribe they identify with. However, the passing of the measure gave the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians autonomy over the control of the cannabis market in the region which was a well-calculated risk. 


The tribe had received warnings from a section of Republicans including Rep. Chuck Edwards not to legalize marijuana in North Carolina. Before the voting, Edwards wrote in Cherokee One Feather, a local tribal news publication insisting that North Carolina marijuana legalization in the tribal territory would be irresponsible and that he intended to stop it. EBCI Chief Principal Richard G. Sneed said the move was a big misstep. 


While speaking to Marijuana Moment, Sneed said he believed resistance from Edwards and other leaders could have triggered the tribal members to vote yes for the measure. He added that the worst move taken was for a non-Indian elected official to tell a sovereign and federally recognized tribe what to do with their issues. 


Tribal governments and states with legal adult-use marijuana to pay a 10% cut


A few days ago, Edward took a further move and introduced in Congress a Stop Pot Act that will demand all tribal governments and states in the US with legal adult-use marijuana to pay 10% federal transportation funding.  However, EBCI is strongly resisting such a move. Sneed said such a bill cannot go anywhere in a place such as DC. 


The successful voting of the measure was praised by the founder of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association (ICIA) Rob Pero. In an email to Marijuana Moment, Pero said the way EBCI handled the referendum and decided their action is an excellent example of the power of sovereignty where it is managed in a good way. He noted that this move was just a small part of what a tribal government can do. 


He said it also provides an opportunity for both state and federal governments to learn a lesson on what it means for government-to-government collaboration in emerging industries. Pero added that although the voting is over, implementation and setting of guidelines might be even tougher. He said his team would continue to monitor the progress and offer support whenever needed. 


Tribal Council decriminalized possession of marijuana in North Carolina


Although the vote automatically legalized the sale and use of cannabis, the council committed itself to abide by the rules when allowing legal use of recreational marijuana. In May 2021, the council voted to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana setting apart the tribal territory as the only region where it is legal to possess weed. 


In the same year, the council also made medical marijuana legal and began preparing to launch a tribal-managed dispensary to open later this fall. This move might trigger North Carolina marijuana measures to be taken in other regions. The vote gave the tribe a chance to participate in the potentially lucrative cannabis market although they received little support from the Republican-led state House. 


Trustworthy sources say Principal Chief Richard Sneed could be worried that the tribe might be expanding too fast. Although Sneed has been pushing for the legalization of medicinal use since he took office in 2017, he feels that the tribe needs to establish all laws and guidelines and have a tangible medical program before they begin any sales. 


He said he feels the current move can be likened to putting a cart before a horse. He worries that the tribe jumped straight to adult use before allowing themselves time to gain experience in running a dispensary under a medical use program. Statewide legalization of marijuana in North Carolina might take time due to a lack of goodwill from the Republicans. However, the vote by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a big step towards this success. 

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