GOP Senators Push For Federal And State Response To Indian Tribe’s 4/20 Marijuana Sales Plan In North Carolina

Two Republican senators are asking federal, state and local officials what steps they are taking to enforce marijuana prohibition as an Indian tribe prepares to launch recreational cannabis sales on its lands within North Carolina on April 20.

On Friday, Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Ted Budd (R-NC) sent a letter with 19 questions about their concerns regarding the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) marijuana plan to the U.S. attorney general, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Interior (DOI), Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), National Indian Gaming Commission and various North Carolina state and local law enforcement agencies.

“As our nation is facing an unprecedented drug crisis that is harming our communities, it is vital to learn what measures your departments and agencies are taking to uphold current federal and state laws,” they wrote, adding that the “matter raises multiple questions on how North Carolina communities will be kept safe.”

ECBI members approved a referendum last September to legalize adult-use cannabis, becoming the first jurisdiction within the borders of North Carolina to enact the reform. More recently, last week the tribe announced that it had set a target date to open retail sales: April 20, 2024, also known as 4/20.

This follows ECBI’s 2021 move to legalize medical cannabis and register Qualla Boundary LLC to dispense marijuana to patients. Registration for the program opened to all North Carolina residents this past June, and in October, the tribe issued its first round of medical marijuana cards.

“With unclear guidance, it makes it difficult for state and local officials to uphold  the rule of law in our communities,” the senators wrote in their letter. “In particular, we have the responsibility to ensure our youth are shielded from untested marijuana products being produced and sold by Qualla Enterprise LLC.”

Tillis and Budd then listed 19 questions that they’re asking officials to respond to, depending on their jurisdiction.

That includes queries about whether tribes are considered exempt from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), whether agencies have concerns about the potential cannabis shop will attract transnational criminal enterprises, whether tribes can take land into trust for the purposes of selling cannabis and whether financial institutions can provide loans and credit to tribes seeking to open a marijuana business.

The senators are also pressing for answers on whether federal officials allow gaming profits derived from casinos to be used in support of marijuana ventures.

Ahead of last year’s legalization vote, Qualla Enterprises published an op-ed in the tribal newspaper, Cherokee One Feather, championing the benefits of adult-use sales. It compared the opportunity to when, “thirty years ago, the Cherokee People decided to build a casino.”

“This was highly controversial at the time, in part because nowhere in the surrounding region allowed gaming,” the company said at the time. “But we were not afraid to be different. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has benefited this Tribe and its members in more ways than we ever imagined.”

The bulk of new jobs created by the policy change, according to the company, would be filled by enrolled ECBI members. In the medical system as of last year, 84 percent of cultivation employees were tribal members, its op-ed said, “which represents the highest of any business owned by the tribe.”

The op-ed also pointed to a statewide poll that found 73 percent of North Carolina residents support legal medical marijuana. And it cited estimates suggesting the state’s illicit cannabis activity amounted to nearly $3.2 billion in 2022.

A more recent survey of North Carolinians, conducted by the Meredith Poll and published last month, found 78 percent support for lawmakers to pass a medical marijuana bill this year.

The tribe’s moves to legalize despite North Carolina’s ongoing prohibition of marijuana drew criticism from other politicians, including Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC). Ahead of the election, Edwards, who is not Native, authored an op-ed in Cherokee One Feather warning that legalization on the tribal land “would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it.”

The congressman also filed a bill in the U.S. House that would slash a portion of federal funding from tribes and states that legalize marijuana.

Then-Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed called the move “a big misstep” at the time. He told Marijuana Moment that 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 said in an interview.

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Marijuana legalization on the Qualla Boundary is expected to eventually bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe. Forrest Parker, general manager of the Qualla Enterprises said last July that “If adult-use were legalized, revenue could conservatively reach $385 million in the first year and exceed $800 million by year five,” according to a Cherokee One Feather report.

Tribal governments in a handful of U.S. states have entered the marijuana business as more jurisdictions legalize. Notably, in Minnesota, where state lawmakers passed an adult-use marijuana program last year, tribes are leading the way.

Minnesota’s cannabis law allows tribes within the state to open marijuana businesses before the state itself begins licensing retailers. Some tribal governments—including the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the White Earth Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe—have already entered the legal market.

It’s believed that in 2020, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, located in South Dakota, became the first tribe to vote to legalize marijuana within a U.S. state where the plant remained illegal.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, a state judge recently declared that anyone who “has the odor of marijuana” will be barred from entering the North Carolina Superior Courts of Robeson County.

The order, from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Gregory Bell, said that smelling like cannabis is grounds for removal from the courthouse, and the sheriff will be directed to “ask you to leave and come back without the odor owns [sic] your persons.”

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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