Indian Tribe Issues First Medical Marijuana Cards In North Carolina As Statewide Legalization Bill Stalls

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), members of which last month voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, began issuing its first medical marijuana patient cards last week. It’s a major milestone for the program, which was passed by the Tribal Council in 2021 but has yet to see a single sale as the result of numerous delays.

It’s still not clear when registered patients will actually be able to shop in the tribe’s dispensary on the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary—technically the only place within North Carolina where cannabis is legal in any form as a medical marijuana bill continues to stall in the state legislature. But last Thursday, officials issued the tribe’s first medical marijuana card, according to the newspaper Cherokee One Feather.

Neil Denman, executive director of the EBCI Cannabis Control Board (CCB), said at a Cherokee Police Commission meeting on Thursday that 1,005 applications for registration cards had been received so far, and the board had approved 817. Another 129 were marked incomplete due to a lack of required information, such as a photo ID, and 59 were denied for lack of a qualifying condition.

One of the biggest hurdles the tribe has faced is how to legally transport cannabis to its dispensary. Part of EBCI’s production procedure involves transporting medical marijuana along a short stretch of state-owned roadway, which Swain County officials have said in the past would be a problem given that cannabis remains illegal in North Carolina itself. (In a previous interview with Marijuana Moment, the tribe’s former principal chief blamed the problem on a “lack of foresight” by the tribe’s non-native vendor for the program.)

At last week’s meeting, Denman told the commission that CCB is coordinating with Swain County to determine and implement a transportation plan, though it seems he did not lay out a timeline for the matter.

He also noted that cards will have daily and weekly purchase limits, and violating those limits could lead to cards being suspended or revoked.

Asked by the commission about the plans to construct a second cultivation site, CCB inspector Brian Parker said construction is still underway on the first. The facility currently has 42 hoop houses, he reported, with a final goal of about 80 hoop houses.

The Cherokee One Feather report did not say whether officials at Thursday’s meeting discussed any other obstacles facing the program, including banking and a lack of laboratory testing.

Denman told the Charlotte Observer, meanwhile, that CCB had also issued agent cards to regulators and cannabis issue workers. Only tribal members can receive cards at first, the paper reported, followed by North Carolina residents.

Earlier this year, the tribe reported having grown nearly $30 million worth of product despite having not determined how to transport it to a point of sale. At the time, officials said they expected sales to begin later this year.

Mike Parker, chairman of the EBCI Tribal Council, told fellow council members last week that the hurdle around transportation was causing financial problems for the tribal cannabis company, Qualla Enterprises, according to the Observer. The council is reportedly considering lending $19 million to the company to help cover wages and operating expenses.

“We haven’t been able to transport the product to the dispensary, is my understanding,” he said. “We have no revenue, because we haven’t been able to transport the product.”

It’s not yet clear when sales of adult-use marijuana might begin. In a September election, tribal members approved a ballot measure that would allow sales to all people 21 and older, regardless of tribal membership, by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent. Although the referendum did not legalize cannabis automatically, tribal leaders have said they’ll follow voters’ lead when they ultimately take up the issue.

Passage of the measure was both an assertion of the tribe’s autonomy and a calculated risk. Some Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC), had warned the tribe against legalization. Beforehand, Edwards authored an op-ed Cherokee One Feather in which the he said legalization on the tribal land “would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it.”

Ahead of the vote, Edwards introduced the Stop Pot Act in Congress, which would cut 10 percent in federal transportation funding from all tribal governments, as well as U.S. states, with legal recreational marijuana.

Then-EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed called the move “a big misstep.” He told Marijuana Moment that he believed pushback from Edwards and others may have emboldened tribal members to support the measure.

Expanding eventual marijuana sales to all adults would eventually create “400 new and well-paying jobs right here in Cherokee,” Qualla Enterprises said in campaigning for the legalization referendum, the majority of which would be filled by enrolled members. At the time 84 percent of cultivation employees were tribal members, “which represents the highest of any business owned by the tribe.”

A third-party analysis projected adult-use sales could generate thousands of dollars in payouts to individual tribal members, who share in the proceeds of tribe-owned businesses. In the first year of legal sales, payouts could be “as high as $5,600″—a number that could climb as high as $12,000 after five years.

At the state level, 73 percent of North Carolina residents support legal medical marijuana, according to a poll published earlier this year. There was majority support across political affiliations, including 91 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of those who identified as unaffiliated.

In the state legislature, a Senate-passed medical marijuana bill stalled in the House this session, the casualty of an informal rule that requires bills to have support from the majority of the chamber’s Republican caucus in order to bring them to the floor. It’s still possible the legislation could be taken up next year.

“It’s a policy change—a major policy change here in the state—and there’s passion on both sides,” House Majority Leader John Bell (R) said in July. “We have members of our caucus that are 100 percent supportive of it and we have other members that are 100 percent against it.”

Sneed, in the interview with Marijuana Moment, noted that many state lawmakers have expressed interest in EBCI’s marijuana operation and have even toured the site, including the North Carolina House and Senate majority leaders as well as House representatives of both political parties. “North Carolina has toyed with the idea of a medical bill for the last two sessions,” he noted. “We thought it was going to pass.”

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 earlier this year, tribes are leading the way.

The White Earth Nation voted in July to authorize marijuana sales and has since opened an adult-use cannabis shop. And the Red Lake Nation, which also began sales in August, also announced plans to launch a mobile marijuana retailer—effectively a cannabis “food truck” that can travel and do business on tribal land throughout the state. Another tribe located within the state, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, has also moved to legalize.

Under Minnesota’s marijuana laws, the state’s governor can also enter into compacts with tribal governments, allowing them to operate on non-tribal land within the state. Many have seen that option as a way to allow the sale of legal cannabis in Minnesota ahead of state licensing, which isn’t expected until 2025. Cannabis regulators said in August that “several” tribes had expressed interest in the arrangement so far.

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.

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