North Carolina Will Soon Get Legal Weed Thanks to the Cherokee Nation
The tribal nation also legalized medical cannabis in 2021, but is not quite ready to begin selling its medicine.
Published on September 15, 2023

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A Native American nation just voted to legalize adult-use cannabis in North Carolina, one of the few US states where weed is still completely illegal. 

Last week, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) held a referendum to decide whether to legalize “the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old, and require the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market.” Around 70% of voters said yes to legal weed, and although the referendum is non-binding, tribal leaders have promised to respect their members' vote. 

North Carolina's GOP leadership has thoroughly crushed any and all attempts to legalize even a basic medical marijuana program in the state. Native American nations are not subject to state laws, however, and the EBCI used their tribal authority to launch a medical marijuana program back in 2021. The tribe will soon allow medical or recreational cannabis to be sold to any adult over the age of 21, including those who are not members of the tribe.

Local politicians are pissed that the tribe has chosen to sidestep their prohibition laws by offering legal cannabis to any adult in the state. Rep. Chuck Edwards (NC) – an ardent prohibitionist who recently proposed a bill that would cut federal funding to legal-weed states – has promised to interfere with the EBCI's plans. “To allow our citizens to travel only a few miles to buy and use this common gateway drug … would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it,” Edwards wrote in an op-ed that was published in Cherokee One Feather before the vote.

Edwards' attempts to scare the tribe into backing down on its plans may have had the exact opposite effect. EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed believes the lawmaker's comments actually encouraged more tribal members to vote yes on 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 told Marijuana Moment.

“In spite of Congressman Chuck Edwards’ blatant attempts to intimidate voters and to interfere with tribal sovereignty, members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians have stood up for their rights and for the rights of cannabis consumers throughout the state,” NORML Political Director Morgan Fox said in a statement

“Despite overwhelming public support for cannabis reform, members of the North Carolina legislature have repeatedly failed to pass sensible legislation,” Fox continued. “Once this referendum is approved and implemented by tribal leaders, the regulated indigenous cannabis market will be a source of great relief for all those living under North Carolina’s draconian and unpopular criminalization policies.” 

That relief probably won't come anytime soon, though. The ECBI is only now getting its medical marijuana program underway, three full years after legalization. The tribe harvested its first crop of legal weed last fall, but is just starting to send out its first medical cannabis cards this month. These applicants must receive a recommendation from a licensed physician before the cards can become active, though. And many patients are reporting that doctors are refusing to issue these recommendations for fear of running into trouble with the law.

Many other Native American nations have already launched their own medical and recreational retail markets, but most of these nations are located in states where weed is already legal. In 2020, the Oglala Sioux Tribe voted to legalize both medical and adult-use cannabis in South Dakota, where recreational use is prohibited. The tribe now sells medical and recreational pot to any adult, but local cops have still been infringing on their sovereignty by arresting non-tribal members who buy weed on tribal land.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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