By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
After six years of wrangling with the issue, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is entering the world of medical cannabis (marijuana). Tribal Council passed an ordinance during the regular session on Thursday, Aug. 5 that establishes law in the Cherokee Code for the regulation of the industry on EBCI tribal lands.
Ord. No. 539, submitted by Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed; Jeremy Wilson, EBCI governmental affairs liaison; and Joey Owle, EBCI secretary of agriculture and natural resources; states in part, “…it is in the best interests of the Tribe to continue advancing the policy of allowing responsible access to small amounts of marijuana to be used safely for medicinal and health purposes.”
The ordinance was passed by a weighted vote of 74-26 as follows: FOR – Wolftown Rep. Chelsea Saunooke, Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose, Wolftown Rep. Bo Crowe, Big Cove Rep. Richard French, Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell, Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle, Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha, Cherokee Co. – Snowbird Rep. Bucky Brown; AGAINST – Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke, Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed, Vice Chairman David Wolfe, and Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah.
Following passage, Wilson, a former Tribal Council representative who worked on the cannabis issue while in office, told the One Feather, “Today’s decision by Tribal Council to pass medical marijuana showcases the progression of leadership and forward vision thinking. I want to sincerely showcase my appreciation for Council for their support and putting the Tribe on a pathway towards real economical diversification, but also finally providing a solution towards the fight against opioids and giving our people relief without worry of severe side effects or addictions.”
He added, “Also a sincere thank you to Chief Sneed for believing in us, and being a level of support in this effort. Joey (Owle) and I dedicated ourselves to see this through because we understood the opportunity for our tribe and people. We understand the amount of responsibility this will take to ensure this is done effectively and efficiently. Just as we dedicated to make it happen, we will equally dedicate to make it work.”
The legislation details the process for licensing ‘medical cannabis establishments’ as well as ‘medical cannabis establishment agents’. It also establishes detailed regulations for issuing ‘medical cannabis patient cards’ to those who are 21-years-old or older who qualify for the program.
During debate on the issue on Thursday, Chief Sneed called it a “compassion-care issue” and added, “We are sovereign, and if we’re going to be sovereign then we should act like that, exercise our sovereignty. This is what our people are asking for.”
He did comment on the legality of the program stating that tribal members will understand the limitations. “Everybody understands that if you go off-Boundary with it, it’s still illegal. We’re adults – we understand that.”
Rep. Rose made the motion to pass the ordinance stating the legislation was “overloaded” with regulations on purpose so that the industry would run smoothly within the Tribe. “It’s not just going to be another revenue-generator for us. It’s going to help our enrolled members with medical conditions.”
Rob Saunooke, an EBCI tribal member and attorney, said he’s been involved with the cannabis industry for some years now in consultation with other tribes and cautions the EBCI. “I’m trying to find out why we are looking at passing an ordinance to authorize cannabis, which is illegal under federal law currently. If you open up a facility today and you give tribal members cannabis, the Tribe, the members, the people who do it, will be subject to arrest. This is an illegal action, and nothing can change that currently.”
He went on to state, “This is a premature attempt to create an industry that is currently illegal. I think we need to spend our time and efforts elsewhere doing things that are more productive to what our people need right now.”
Saunooke, as well as Rep. Tommye Saunooke who has expressed her support in the past for medicinal cannabis, advocated for the legislation to have been tabled for further discussion.
Secretary Owle spoke next and said, “What a wonderful day to make history – to exercise our sovereignty. If it were an issue for the federal government about cannabis legalization, it would have addressed it with the 36 states, the four territories that allow medicinal cannabis. It would have addressed it with the 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia that have legalized it for adult use.”
“We’ve been at this for six years – talking with y’all, advocating for cannabis law reform. And, today the questions that I think are most relevant and pertinent are not about why it’s federally illegal or what those risks are. Those have been asked in the state. They’ve been asked in the Western District Attorney for North Carolina. Today’s questions that should be asked are, ‘why do patients find it useful?’ and ‘how can we get them safe, reliable access to it?’”
The ordinance establishes the EBCI Cannabis Advisory Commission which will be charged with “studying issues related to cannabis and making recommendations to the EBCI Cannabis Control Board, Tribal Council, and Principal Chief regarding the regulation of medical cannabis and any activity related to cannabis.”
The Commission is the newest incarnation of the idea as a previous Cannabis Commission was approved in December 2019.
The following will serve on the Commission: Principal Chief (or designee), Tribal Council chairperson (or designee), Community Club chairperson (or designee), EBCI secretary of agriculture and natural resources (or designee), EBCI secretary of public health and human services (or designee), chief of Cherokee Indian Police Dept. (or designee), and the chief executive officer of the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority (or designee).
The legislation also establishes the EBCI Cannabis Control Board. The Principal Chief will appoint the members to the five-member Board who will be subject to Tribal Council confirmation. Three of the five members are required to be EBCI tribal members or members of another federally recognized tribe.
The Board will consist of a certified public accountant; an expert in investigation, financial auditing, or corporate compliance; a licensed attorney; an expert in the cannabis industry; and a licensed physician.
Ord. No. 593 also amends Cherokee Code Section 105-3 and adds “sales of cannabis made in accordance with Cherokee Code Chapter 17” with those things being exempt from tribal levy.
This latest legislation was the result of several years of work and wrangling with various resolutions regarding cannabis. One of the latest was Res. No. 323 (2020) which was passed on Oct. 29, 2020 and directed the EBCI Executive Committee to develop “legislation directed toward allowing the use of medical marijuana on the Qualla Boundary in the most practical, responsible, and lawful way possible”.
That legislation also stated, “There is evidence that when properly regulated and responsibly-used, medical marijuana can be used to treat chronic illnesses and conditions including: epilepsy, seizures, muscle spasms, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, nausea, pain, complications related to Alzheimer’s Disease, Crohn’s Disease, and some mental health conditions.”