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Indian Tribe Plans To Open North Carolina’s First Marijuana Dispensary On 4/20



Following last year’s decision by members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) to legalize cannabis for adult use, the tribe has set a target date to open retail sales: April 20, 2024. If all goes as planned, the launch will mark the first-ever legal marijuana sales within the borders of North Carolina.

“It’s the national cannabis holiday, right?” Lee Griffin, human resources director for the tribe’s marijuana business, Qualla Enterprises, said of the 4/20 start date during a ECBI tribal council work session on Wednesday. “Across the country, it’s the biggest revenue date annually” for cannabis.

“It’s like New Year’s Eve at the casino,” he said.

The retail store—located on the tribe’s 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary—will be open to any adult 21 and older, regardless of tribal membership.

Members of the tribe voted last September to legalize and regulate adult-use sales, approving a ballot measure with a strong 70 percent–30 percent margin.

Two years earlier, in 2021, ECBI’s Qualla Boundary became the first place in North Carolina where medical marijuana was legal after the tribal council adopted a regulated system. Registration for the program opened to all North Carolina residents this past June, and in October, the tribe issued its first round of medical marijuana cards.

At this week’s tribal council meeting, which was first reported by The Charlotte Observer, Griffin said that about 1,400 people have already applied for cannabis-related jobs, though Qualla Enterprises aims to hire just over 350. Currently the business employs 69 employees, he said.

Ahead of last year’s legalization vote, Qualla Enterprises published an op-ed in the tribal newspaper, Cherokee One Feather, championing the benefits of adult-use sales. It compared the opportunity to when, “thirty years ago, the Cherokee People decided to build a casino.”

“This was highly controversial at the time, in part because nowhere in the surrounding region allowed gaming,” the company said at the time. “But we were not afraid to be different. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has benefited this Tribe and its members in more ways than we ever imagined.”

The bulk of new jobs created by the policy change, according to the company, would be filled by enrolled ECBI members. In the medical system as of last year, 84 percent of cultivation employees were tribal members, its op-ed said, “which represents the highest of any business owned by the tribe.”

The op-ed also pointed to a statewide poll that found 73 percent of North Carolina residents support legal medical marijuana. And it cited estimates suggesting the state’s illicit cannabis activity amounted to nearly $3.2 billion in 2022.

A more recent survey of North Carolinians, conducted by the Meredith Poll and published last month, found 78 percent support for lawmakers to pass a medical marijuana bill this year.

The tribe’s moves to legalize despite North Carolina’s ongoing prohibition on marijuana drew criticism from some politicians, including U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC). Ahead of the election, Edwards, who is not Native, authored an op-ed in Cherokee One Feather warning that legalization on the tribal land “would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it.”

The congressman also filed a bill in the U.S. House that would slash a portion of federal funding from tribes and states that legalize marijuana.

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

Marijuana legalization on the Qualla Boundary is expected to eventually bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe. Forrest Parker, general manager of the Qualla Enterprises said last July that “If adult-use were legalized, revenue could conservatively reach $385 million in the first year and exceed $800 million by year five,” according to a Cherokee One Feather report.

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 last year, tribes are leading the way.

Minnesota’s cannabis law allows tribes within the state to open marijuana businesses before the state itself begins licensing retailers. Some tribal governments—including the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the White Earth Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe—have already entered the legal market.

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.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, a state judge recently declared that anyone who “has the odor of marijuana” will be barred from entering the North Carolina Superior Courts of Robeson County.

The order, from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Gregory Bell, said that smelling like cannabis is grounds for removal from the courthouse, and the sheriff will be directed to “ask you to leave and come back without the odor owns [sic] your persons.”

Virginia GOP Governor Still Doesn’t Have ‘Any Interest’ In Signing Marijuana Sales Bill As Democratic Legislature Approves Plan

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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