The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is continuing its path toward cannabis accessibility, and as of last week the tribe officially issued its first medical cannabis cards.
According to EBCI Cannabis Control Board (CCB) executive director, Neil Denman, a Cherokee Police Commission monthly meeting was held on Oct. 12. In a presentation featuring Denman and his colleague, Kym Parker, they stated that the first medical cannabis card was issued on that day, and many more will follow in the coming weeks. A total of 1,005 medical cannabis card applications were submitted, and so far 817 were approved. Only 129 are labeled as incomplete, due to missing assets such as a photo ID, and 59 were denied because of “lack of a qualifying ailment.”
The EBCI live on a 57,000-acre reservation called the Qualla Boundary. The tribe’s website states that they have 14,000 registered tribe members, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the reservation is home to 9,600 people, 77% of whom are of Indian descent, and 23% non-Indian. The boundary is also home to two casinos that the tribe manages.
The topic of transporting cannabis to its dispensary was called into question by Vice Chairman Joseph Buddy Johnson. For this to happen, the cannabis products must be moved on a state highway through Swain County. According to Denman, they are coordinating with Swain County to put together a transportation plan.
The EBCI dispensary hasn’t opened yet, so the medical cannabis cards can’t be used. When the program becomes fully operational, the cards will limit how much daily and/or weekly cannabis that patients can purchase. Should a patient violate those rules, their card will be either suspended or revoked. The cards can also be used by off-boundary members who seek to grow their own cannabis plants at home.
Currently there are plans for only one cultivation site at the moment, which is still under construction. In total, the grow will feature 42 hoop houses that will hold 2,040 plants. Eventually, they hope to expand their hoop house number to 69-70. Johnson inquired about plans for a second cultivation site, but Denman explained that the first site is the focus for now.
Originally, the EBCI Tribal Council voted to decriminalize cannabis, as well as legalize medical cannabis back in 2021—a historic event considering that this was accomplished prior to the state of North Carolina making significant progress to legalize medical cannabis.
By November 2022, EBCI had harvested its first cannabis crop. “It’s a vertical market. We have to plant it. We have to cultivate it. We have to harvest it. We have to process it. We have to package it and move through all of that network of product and get it there. It’s a lot of people,” said Qualla Enterprises LLC general manager, Forrest Parker. One month later, the EBCI Tribal Council agreed to provide Qualla Enterprises with $63 million to properly regulate medical cannabis. “This tribe, I’m so proud of us for putting us in a position to learn from other people’s mistakes so that when we do this right, that number is precise,” Parker said. “It’s not $150 million because we’re trying to cover all these things that we don’t know. We actually feel like we actually know.”
In January 2023, the tribe announced that it would be moving forward with its plans to regulate medical cannabis on the reservation. The council voted to introduce their prepared regulations to the North Carolina General Assembly. Principal Chief Richard Sneed spoke at the meeting where the 12-person council approved the regulations, stating that it is of the utmost importance to keep the state legislature in the know. “All this is, is it as a matter of tribal law, before anybody does any work engaging with the state or federal legislature, we have to have permission of the governing legislative body to do so,” Sneed said.
In another record decision on Sept. 7, the EBCI tribe members voted in favor of a proposal to permit the sale of recreational cannabis on tribal land as well. “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,” said Sneed. Now the council will move forward with developing legislation to regulate legal cannabis.
The Qualla Boundary is currently the only area of North Carolina where medical or recreational cannabis is legal. In July, Senate Bill 3 was introduced, which would have legalized medical cannabis for patients with life-ending illness. While the bill was initially passed in the Senate earlier this year, it didn’t receive support in the House.
However, House Speaker Tim Moore announced that the bill was likely dead for 2023. In order for it to pass, it “would require a number of House members who’ve taken a position of ‘no’ to literally switch their position to want to vote for it, and I just don’t see that happening,” Moore explained.