The tribal government of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, well-known in North Carolina for having the first lawful casino in the state, this month voted to begin making and selling medical marijuana on Cherokee tribal territory, known as the Qualla Boundary.
This is about 50 miles west of Asheville in the western North Carolina mountains. It includes the town of Cherokee and the Cherokee land in Swain, Jackson and Haywood counties.
A Cherokee tribal official spoke with the USA TODAY Network about the program and how it will operate. Here are eight things to know about it:
1. Will visitors will be allowed to buy it?
Yes. People who aren’t Cherokee will be allowed to visit the tribe and buy medical marijuana from the Cherokee dispensary, said Jeremy Wilson, the governmental affairs liaison for Principal Chief Richard B. Sneed.
But any potential customer will have to share health records with the tribe’s Cannabis Control Board, the medical marijuana ordinance says. The board will review the health records and decide whether to issue the person a medical cannabis patient card, which is required for the purchase of medical marijuana in the Qualla Boundary.
The person must be age 21 or older to receive the card.
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2. Why did the Cherokee tribe legalize medical marijuana?
A key reason: Money.
The Cherokee tribe has enjoyed monopoly-level revenue on legal casino gambling in this region of the country since 1997. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson said, the tribe gleaned $500 million a year from its casino.
But gambling laws have loosened and the Catawba Indians this summer opened the competing Catawba Two Kings Casino about 35 miles west of Charlotte.
The Cherokee tribe needs to diversify its income, Wilson said.
“When you have two options between — do you go to Kings Casino or do you go to Cherokee North Carolina — well Two Kings is obviously closer,” he said. “But now you got another option: You got cannabis and casino. So come see Cherokee, North Carolina.”
A tribe in Nevada saw tremendous revenue when it opened a medical marijuana dispensary, Wilson said, and the Cherokee people hope for similar results.
Other than Cherokee, the places nearest to North Carolina for legal sales of medical marijuana are Virginia and Alabama.
Beyond the financial rewards, Wilson said medical marijuana will help tribal members who need it for their medical care and who don’t like the risks of the black market. Black market marijuana may be laced with dangerous substances like fentanyl, he said.
“So, we have a lot of enrolled members that, you know, they do resort to marijuana for their medicinal needs and they don’t want to take prescription opioids because it makes them even sicker and it subjects themselves to addiction at a very high rate here,” he said.
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3. What ailments and health conditions qualify?
The Cherokee tribe’s medical marijuana ordinance says people age 21 and older with the following illnesses and health conditions (and who have the tribe’s medical cannabis patient cards) will be allowed to purchase marijuana from the tribe’s dispensaries:
► Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders, autoimmune diseases, anorexia nervosa, cancer, dependence upon or addiction to opioids, glaucoma.
► A medical condition or treatment for a medical condition that produces: cachexia (wasting syndrome), muscle spasms (including spasms caused by multiple sclerosis), seizures (including seizures caused by epilepsy), nausea, severe or chronic pain.
► A medical condition related to the human immunodeficiency virus.
► A neuropathic condition.
► Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Other medical conditions and treatments may be added later.
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4. When will sales begin, and where?
Wilson said the tribe plans to start sales from a dispensary in the town of Cherokee in 2022. An exact date is not yet set.
The ordinance allows a maximum of two dispensaries in the Qualla Boundary over the next three years. More may be permitted afterward.
The first dispensaries will be operated by Kituwah Medical LLC, which is owned by the Cherokee tribal government.
5. How much can someone purchase and possess?
When the Cherokee tribe begins its dispensary program, lawful medical marijuana customers may buy no more than one ounce per day, and no more than six ounces per month.
Since May, it has been legal for adults to possess up to one once of marijuana in the Qualla Boundary.
6. Where will people be allowed to lawfully consume medical marijuana?
The Cherokee ordinance says people may not have their medical marijuana anywhere that is open to the public or exposed to public view. It’s also prohibited in Tribal offices and facilities, in schools and in community centers.
Visitors may be allowed to smoke or eat their medical marijuana products in hotel rooms — that will be up to the hotel owners, Wilson said.
In vehicles, medical marijuana must remain sealed in its original container if it is in the passenger area. And it is also illegal to operate a car or truck, powerboat or sailboat while under the influence of marijuana.
7. What happens if someone leaves the Cherokee area with medical marijuana?
Anyone who leaves the Qualla Boundary is subject to any state and local laws regarding possession of marijuana. In North Carolina, possession of 1.5 ounces or less is a misdemeanor, while more than 1.5 ounces is a felony.
8. Isn’t North Carolina legalizing medical marijuana statewide?
The state Senate has held hearings on legislation to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina.
Although Senate Bill 711, the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act, has the backing of two powerful Republican senators in the Republican-controlled legislature and has been approved by two Senate committees, its prospects for passage into law remain uncertain.
Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and firstname.lastname@example.org.