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Cherokee Indians vote to legalize recreational marijuana, expand liquor sales

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(The Center Square) – The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to legalize recreational marijuana sales and use on its western North Carolina reservation, setting the tribe up for a flood of new revenue and jobs.

The tribe’s 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary near Cherokee could soon become the only place in North Carolina to legally purchase marijuana after its members voted 2,464-1,057. Tribal members also approved by a wide margin a second proposal to expand liquor sales, from restriction to casinos only, to restaurants, hotels and other places on the reservation.

“Adult Use Cannabis represents another opportunity for our people to lead,” Qualla Enterprises, the tribe’s marijuana company, wrote in an editorial in the Cherokee One Feather, the tribe’s newspaper. “While multiple states and tribes across the United States have already legalized adult use cannabis, nowhere in the surrounding region has done so. The Cherokee people can and should be first and reap the benefits of our courage and leadership.”

Thursday’s approvals are not binding. The tribal government must approve legislation to make them happen, though the Tribal Council has signaled it plans to follow through. When it does, marijuana sales will be open to adults 21 years of age or older; it will not be limited to tribal members.

Qualla Enterprises officials expect the move will generate “extraordinary revenue” and about 400 jobs that will go primarily to tribal members. Company officials have said conservative revenue estimates of $385 million in the first year, and $800 million by year five, dwarf projections for an existing medical marijuana program that’s nearing an official launch.

The projections from the medical program, which has faced a series of delays associated with vendors, start at $206 million the first year and go to $578 million in the fifth, according to officials.

The potential revenue boost could translate to payouts for the tribe’s 14,000 members who share proceeds of other tribal businesses, including its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.

Based on third-party observation from HedgeRow Analysis, members could collect as much as $5,600 the first year, and up to $12,000 by year five, if tribal government elects to distribute revenue in a manner similar to casino revenues, according to Qualla Enterprises.

Thursday’s vote also served as a rebuke to efforts tribal leaders have characterized as overreach on a sovereign, federally recognized Indian tribe. U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, R-N.C., who represents the congressional district surrounding the Qualla Boundary, campaigned against the referendum and introduced legislation to withhold federal funding from tribes and states that permit recreational marijuana.

Chief Richard Sneed suggested ahead of the vote an editorial by Edwards in the tribal newspaper would likely motivate some members to the polls.

Many state lawmakers, including chamber majority leaders, have watched the tribe’s progress with marijuana closely, touring its facilities where Qualla Enterprises has amassed about $30 million worth of cannabis to prepare for sales.

The state Senate approved Senate Bill 3 to create a state medical marijuana program with a vote of 36-10 in March, but the measure has since died in the House. Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said there is not enough support to make it a reality. The same dynamic played out last session.

A fiscal note for SB3 suggests North Carolina could collect as much as $44.4 million annually by fiscal year 2027-28 through a 10% gross revenue fee and patient and caregiver card application fees in the bill.

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