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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has started the process of legalizing medical marijuana, joining a growing number of U.S. tribes eying the drug's economic and medicinal potential.

The Tribal Council this fall passed a resolution submitted by Principal Chief Richard Sneed and two others to legalize marijuana’s medical use.

“When we did the town hall meeting on the alcohol issue and alcohol referendum, it was quite surprising that while there were many people at that meeting who opposed alcohol sales, there was a large contingency of people who supported medicinal marijuana,” Sneed said.

A separate measure before the council would put marijuana to a referendum, asking tribal citizens whether to extend legalization to recreational use. Council members are expected to consider it next month.

The resolution that passed unanimously in October with one council member absent noted other tribes and more than 30 states have legalized marijuana, at least for medical use. It also called on the Eastern Cherokees’ attorney general’s office to communicate with the U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina to reach a mutual understanding.


“We’re asking for (Council’s) permission to move forward in creating legislation that we could bring before this body to actually implement a medicinal marijuana program here on the boundary,” Sneed said.

Marijuana is illegal under North Carolina state law, though a commission has recommended decriminalizing possession of up to 1.5 ounces.

Tribes across the country have been considering regulating cannabis after seeing the industry’s growth and the success of the Paiute Indian Tribe, which sells marijuana near the Las Vegas Strip. 

Earlier this year, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed a referendum to legalize medical and recreational pot on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, while citizens of the White Earth Nation and Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota approved medical marijuana. Other tribes that operate cannabis stores include the Puyallup in Washington state.

Meanwhile, a legal fight is playing out on the Navajo Nation, where the tribe filed suit this year against nearly three dozen people, accusing them of illegally growing hemp or marijuana on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation Council had recently refined the law regarding marijuana possession and distribution, and expanded the penalties. The tribe does not have a regulatory system for industrial hemp.

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The National Congress of American Indians, at its 2015 conference in San Diego, passed a resolution addressing marijuana and hemp policies in Indian Country.

“Indian tribes are sovereign governments with the inherent right to set local laws addressing marijuana, including its medical and industrial uses, according to the public health and economic needs of their unique communities,” the resolution said.

The organization also noted that the U.S. Justice Department has inconsistently applied policy, and that legislation calling for state laws to preempt federal policy where marijuana is legal has failed to include tribal governments.

“NCAI strongly opposes any administrative or congressional policy, regulation or legislation that would limit the inherent sovereign authority of tribes to regulate marijuana and hemp according to the public health and economic needs of their unique communities,” the group state.

The Eastern Cherokee, like many tribes and communities, have struggled to combat an opioid crisis.

Jeremy Wilson, the tribe’s governmental affairs liaison and one of the submitters of its legislation, has been active in trying to change the tribe’s regulation of cannabis, going back to his time serving on the Tribal Council. He sees it as a potential revenue stream and a way to address overcoming addiction.

“For us specifically, that’s always been the discussion that no one has the answer for,” he said. “It helps people.”

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Eastern Cherokee tribal member Billy Lossiah-Bratt, lead clinical therapist for the Spencer Recovery Center in St. Pete Beach, Florida, agrees that marijuana can have positive effects.

“Medical marijuana provides an enormous benefit for pain management. It limits dependence on opioid medication for pain management. The primary benefit is no physical dependency.”

He said, however, there is a risk of psychological dependence. “Strict regulation is paramount to avoid potential abuse of selling marijuana outside the parameters of a prescribed medical dispensary.”

Some states with medical marijuana allow patients with opioid addiction to use pot as a treatment, although the evidence that it helps people use fewer opioids comes mostly from anecdotal reports or surveys of drug users.

Eastern Cherokee Harold Long, a hemp grower and owner of Long Family Farms and Gallery near Murphy, North Carolina, submitted legislation to put marijuana to a referendum.

His resolution states the tribe needs licensing criteria so its members can “develop economic growth while utilizing the benefits of the cannabis plants, both medically and industrially.”

It calls for a yes-or-no vote on: allowing a higher level of THC, the active chemical that creates a high, than what is permitted by the state; allowing medical cannabis; or full legalization.

After being tabled in the December session, the legislation should be on the Tribal Council’s agenda in January.

Long’s son Travis Long speaks for him. After surviving cancer, the elder Long has difficulty talking. Travis Long said he hopes his tribe will look at economic opportunities for tribal members.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians member Travis Long, whose father farms hemp, cares for one of his plants. Long’s father, Harold Long, submitted legislation to put marijuana to a referendum, which should be heard next month. (Photo by Nancy Long)

“The tribe has a unique opportunity to get on board with at least medicinal, if not full legalization, ahead of where North Carolina stands,” he said. “What we are concerned about is, my father is a farmer who’s invested in equipment and time, growing hemp, and we would like the tribe to consider tribal members in any economic opportunities moving forward. We would like the opportunity to grow, legally. My parents have worked hard, just through the state of North Carolina, to grow hemp.”

Long said his father, who has had to be on a feeding tube, is able to create an appetite through cannabis use. “From a perspective of medicine, I know it helps him.”

If the tribe legalizes marijuana for any use, it would still need to work with law enforcement in North Carolina’s jurisdiction, as well as federal law enforcement.

Some officers are already confused with what to do about marijuana and hemp. Even if pot becomes legal on tribal land, laws prohibiting it would still be enforced outside its boundaries.

Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, the son of an Eastern Cherokee tribal member, lives less than a mile from tribal land.

“It’s very convoluted and confusing for law enforcement officers,” he said. “My personal opinion is that the entire state of North Carolina should either legalize it completely or make it illegal completely.”

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.