Voters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, located within North Carolina, will decide on a marijuana legalization measure on Sep. 7

Two measures will appear on the ballot for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) voters on Sep. 7, 2023. One measure would allow mixed beverage permits for qualified establishments on tribal lands, and the other measure would legalize marijuana for adults who are at least 21 years old. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a federally recognized Indian Tribe based in western North Carolina.

Both measures were approved for the ballot by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council. The measure to put the referendum for marijuana legalization on the ballot, Resolution No. 633, was approved by the EBCI Tribal Council by 56-38, with 6 absent.

Councilmember Teresa McCoy, who submitted the resolution for the marijuana legalization measure, said that the issue should be put before voters to decide. She said, “If our voters say no, they don’t want adult use, then let’s fly in there and get that medicinal. If they say they do want adult use, then move forward. It’s that simple. I’m not for or against it.”

If approved by voters, the measure would allow for the possession and use of cannabis for adults at least 21 years old and would allow for the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market. 

Rep. Michael Stamper, who voted against the marijuana measure, said, “I don’t have any reason to think that it wouldn’t pass, but I do fear the immense support to push to get us into a deeper market that we don’t really have the financials to support right now would be overwhelming and it could cause some fiscal issues down the road.  With that in mind, it would be best to not give this question until we’re at a point where we can financially support a recreational program.  Right now, we’re just trying to get medical off the ground.”

In 2021, the EBCI Tribal Council approved a medical marijuana program. In April 2023, the program to apply for a medical marijuana card opened to tribal members, and in June 2023, the program opened to North Carolina residents. Applicants for a medical marijuana card must be at least 21 years old and at minimum meet a certain health condition in a list of 18 health conditions.

Recreational and medical cannabis are illegal in North Carolina. There is no language in the referendum that would limit the sale of recreational marijuana to tribal members. If the measure passes, the tribe’s 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary would be the only place in North Carolina where marijuana could be legally purchased and used. However, there have been concerns regarding the transportation of recreational marijuana from the Coopers Creek grow site to the dispensary. While the grow site is on tribal land, transporting it to the dispensary would mean using state-owned roads off tribal land. Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said, “I stated that until North Carolina changes the law, that it is still illegal to possess or transport marijuana on the highway.”

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) said, “This is an issue that the tribe and local law enforcement will need to work out.”

The other measure on the ballot, which was approved by the EBCI Tribal Council on June 1, 2023, would allow for the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to issue mixed beverage permits on tribal lands to qualified establishments, which include hotels, restaurants, convention centers, and non-profit organizations. In September 2021, EBCI voters approved three measures that allowed for the retail sale of beer and wine within the Qualla Boundary; expanded the sale of wine and beer to restaurants, hotels, and other qualified establishments; and allowed the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission to operate an ABC Package Store to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands.

EBCI voters will decide on both measures on Sep. 7, 2023.