The head of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), which is set to vote on a referendum to legalize cannabis for adults on Thursday, says he believes efforts by an anti-marijuana North Carolina GOP congressman to insert himself into the tribe’s internal affairs could ultimately cause more members to support of the measure.
In an interview this week with Marijuana Moment, EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed said it was a “big misstep” for U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC) to run an op-ed in the tribal news publication, Cherokee One Feather, in which the congressman said legalization on the tribal land “would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it.”
“Him putting the op-ed in the paper probably fuels more people to vote for it,” said Sneed, who, along with EBCI’s vice chief and members of the tribal council, also faces an election this week. “So we’ll see what happens come Thursday.”
Last week Edwards followed up on the threat by introducing in Congress the Stop Pot Act, which would cut 10 percent in federal transportation funding from all tribal governments, as well as U.S. states, with legal recreational marijuana.
The chief said he understands where Edwards is coming from with the Stop Pot Act, and he believes the freshman congressman has every right to introduce the bill—in the United States. But meddling in EBCI’s own vote on its sovereign land, he said, went too far.
“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,” he told Marijuana Moment. “That is a big misstep.”
The referendum would not immediately legalize marijuana, said Richard French, chair of EBCI’s tribal council. But he said the council will follow voters’ direction when deciding how to move forward. “We made the move to give it to the people, and if the people vote it down, then that’s what we’ll go with,” French told NBC News.
As for where Sneed stands on the referendum, he says it’s complicated. “On the one hand, I support adult use,” he said. “On the other hand, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse again.”
EBCI’s tribal land, the Qualla Boundary, is already the only jurisdiction within North Carolina’s borders where medical marijuana is legal. The Tribal Council passed regulations for the system in 2021, and it opened registration to all North Carolina residents this past June. But so far, delays—including around transportation, banking and lab testing—mean that no actual sales have occurred despite the tribe having grown millions of dollars in product.
“This project is probably six months or more behind schedule,” the chief said. “That’s problematic for me.”
The fact that cannabis remains illegal in all forms in North Carolina is one reason for the delays. Part of EBCI’s production procedure involves transporting medical marijuana along a short stretch of state-owned roadway, which Swain County officials have said presents a problem. “I stated that until North Carolina changes the law, that it is still illegal to possess or transport marijuana on the highway,” Sheriff Curtis Cochran told a local news outlet last month.
Sneed told Marijuana Moment that many of the troubles could’ve been avoided. “The issue I have with all of this, really, is with the vendor that we’re engaged with, their lack of foresight for how they were going to get product from one piece of tribal land, across state land, and back onto to tribal land,” he said. “If we had the production operation on contiguous tribal land, then you can just take the Sheriff Cochran issue off the table.”
Delays have also resulted from the lack of laboratory testing available for medical marijuana, which by law must be tested before it can be sold. “It’s been six, seven months, maybe longer, to have a third-party lab established on site, which we approved,” Sneed said, again pointing to the tribe’s non-Native vendor. “Still no lab.”
“There’s all this production happening and there’s no testing happening,” he continued. “And then there’s all this product sitting around that’s just, you know, degrading over time… You can’t just leave product sitting around for six, eight, 10 months at a time.”
At the state level in North Carolina, a Senate-passed medical marijuana bill stalled in the House this session, the casualty of an informal rule that requires bills to have support from the majority of the chamber’s Republican caucus in order to bring them to the floor. It’s still possible the legislation could be taken up next year.
“It’s a policy change—a major policy change here in the state—and there’s passion on both sides,” House Majority Leader John Bell (R) said in July. “We have members of our caucus that are 100 percent supportive of it and we have other members that are 100 percent against it.”
Sneed noted that many state lawmakers have expressed interest in EBCI’s marijuana operation and have even toured the site, including the North Carolina House and Senate majority leaders as well as House representatives of both political parties. “North Carolina has toyed with the idea of a medical bill for the last two sessions,” he noted. “We thought it was going to pass.”
Despite the public flap between EBCI and outside critics of the referendum, Sneed emphasized that cannabis is just one piece of the tribe’s relationship with state and local officials. And from where he sits, it represents “very little” of the whole.
“While it seems to be a big issue in the media, it’s kind of a blip on the radar screen. You know, this doesn’t come up that often in our discussions,” he said, then added: “Maybe it’s the elephant in the room, I don’t know.”
The tribe has longstanding relationships with officials in surrounding jurisdictions, including Swain, Jackson and Haywood counties, Sneed continued. “We have mutual aid agreements with all the surrounding counties, and our service personnel work hand-in-hand with theirs regularly. We’re all out here in Western North Carolina, so we have to work together.”
Sneed even complimented Rep. Edwards and Sheriff Cochran, saying he has good relationships with both officials.
“I still like Rep. Edwards. He’s a good man. He’s conservative, and I understand his position—but I don’t agree with it,” he said. And he’s known Cochran “for 25 years or more.”
“I recognize that, as human beings, we’re going to disagree from time to time on issues,” Sneed said, “but that doesn’t mean that the relationship is over. We still have to work together on other issues, and that’s what I told Rep. Edwards and it’s what I’ve told Sheriff Cochran.”
As for the federal Stop Pot Act, the chief said Rep. Edwards “can take whatever action he would like to take at the federal level.”
“But I can tell you that, in D.C. right now, a bill like that would go nowhere.”
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 earlier this year, tribes are leading the way.
The White Earth Nation voted in July to authorize marijuana sales and has since opened an adult-use cannabis shop. And the Red Lake Nation, which also began sales in August, recently announced plans to launch a mobile marijuana retailer—effectively a cannabis “food truck” that can travel and do business on tribal land throughout the state. Another tribe located within the state, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is also moving to legalize.
Under Minnesota’s marijuana laws, the state’s governor can also enter into compacts with tribal governments, allowing them to operate on non-tribal land within the state. Many have seen that option as a way to allow the sale of legal cannabis in Minnesota ahead of state licensing, which isn’t expected until 2025. Cannabis regulators said last month that “several” tribes have expressed interest in the arrangement so far. (Full Story)