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FAQ: Can you buy marijuana on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina?

The Qualla Boundary will be the first place to legally buy marijuana in North Carolina.
Courtesy of Unsplash
The Qualla Boundary will be the first place to legally buy marijuana in North Carolina.

In February, the Eastern Band of Cherokee announced the tribe’s dispensary will move forward with selling cannabis in April.

While details are still being finalized, here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the sovereign nation’s ability to sell marijuana.

Isn’t marijuana illegal?

Yes, while some states have decriminalized marijuana or legalized medicinal use, the substance is illegal under federal law. Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2014.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee is a sovereign nation with its own laws, court system and government, so it sets laws around substance use and possession.

What does it mean to be a sovereign nation?

The Eastern Band of Cherokee bought back its land after the 1830 Removal Act. The land, called the Qualla Boundary, is held in a federal trust. Unlike other indigenous tribes, who reside on reservation lands owned by the federal government, the boundary nd is a sovereign nation inside the state of North Carolina. This sovereign status is why cannabis can be legal on the Qualla Boundary and the Tribe’s other trust lands while it remains illegal on other U.S.-owned land and property in North Carolina.

How is the Eastern Band of Cherokee selling marijuana?

The tribe approved future sales of medical cannabis in a 2021 referendum.

The measure sparked the creation of the Cannabis Control Board to regulate the sale of cannabis. The tribe’s cannabis business is operated by a private business, Qualla Enterprises, LLC, which is the only entity licensed by the board to sell cannabis at present.

Last summer, the operation had already grown 45 different strains of cannabis, the Cherokee One Featherreported.

The Great Smoky Cannabis Company, a retail outlet operated by Qualla Enterprises, will open April 20.

Where is the cannabis coming from?

The Eastern Band has been working on plans to grow, sell and allow marijuana use on the Qualla Boundary since before 2015.

The EBCI began growing hemp as part of a state agricultural program in 2017 and then expanded to cannabis.

Qualla Enterprises, an arm of the tribe’s economic development office, oversees the growth and production of cannabis on its 22.5-acre farm.

Who will be able to buy the cannabis and how?

Under current regulations, medical use cannabis has been approved by the tribal council.

NC residents over the age of 21 can apply for a medical card with a $100 application fee, there is a $50 application fee for enrolled tribal members.

Medical card holders will need to prove one of 18 medical conditions including anxiety, PTSD and cancer approved by the Cannabis Control Board.

The council is considering an adult-use ordinance (already approved by voters in September) which would allow cannabis to be purchased by adults over the age of 21. The next scheduled council meeting is the first week of April.

Anyone with a medical card will be able to purchase cannabis at the Smoky Mountain Dispensary on the Qualla Boundary when it opens on April 20.

Who can get a medical card?

Any North Carolina resident who has one of the 18 health conditions approved for use can apply for the card through the Cannabis Control Board.

Applicants who are North Carolina residents pay a $100 application fee, and enrolled EBCI Members pay a $50 application fee.

Where can cannabis be smoked?

It is legal to smoke on the Qualla Boundary and the Tribe’s other trust lands, but there are restrictions that will be enforced by the tribal police such as the rule that cannabis cannot be ingested at the dispensary.

Can anyone buy recreational marijuana at the dispensary on 4/20?

Not yet. Under current regulations, only medical cannabis purchase has been approved by the tribal council.

Tribal council could approve adult recreational use at its April 4 meeting.

How have other politicians responded?

While the Eastern Band gets ready to start selling cannabis in April, marijuana remains illegal in North Carolina and other parts of the United States.

In early March, Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd sent a letter to federal, state and local law enforcement about selling pot on the Qualla Boundary. The letter asked tribal leaders how they plan to uphold state and federal laws that make marijuana illegal.

The principal chief’s office issued a statement in response, calling the letter full of “misinformation and inflammatory language that promotes fears and misunderstandings.”

“The Eastern Band is attempting to enter the medical marijuana field with careful and thorough consideration of all the legal and policy implications of this industry. We have been open about our efforts with law enforcement and regulatory bodies, as well as the public, about our intentions. The Eastern Band is establishing a model for safety and responsibility in an industry that is already legal in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and tribal lands across the United States,” Public Relations Officer Sheyahshe Littledave said in a statement.

“It’s a shame that Senator Tillis and Senator Budd did not respectfully communicate their concerns directly to Eastern Band Cherokee leaders, instead choosing a frontal attack on Cherokee sovereignty.”

Before the September 2023 vote, Rep. Chuck Edwards made his disapproval of legalization known byintroducing a federal bill that would withhold funding from states and tribes that allow the use of recreational marijuana.

The billwas referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure after it was introduced, and then referred to the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit on September 5, 2023.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.