Cherokee Nation Just Decriminalized Weed Possession in State Where Pot Is Still Illegal

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The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal council, which oversees Native communities located on the western edge of North Carolina, has voted to decriminalize the possession of an ounce of cannabis for those 21 years and older, Cherokee One Feather reports.  

As a sovereign nation not subject to state laws, the tribe’s decision to decriminalize cannabis possession of up to an ounce makes it the first area in North Carolina to remove marijuana possession penalties. 

The changes to the Eastern Band’s drug code passed nearly unanimously, with 11 council members voting for the decriminalization and one only against. The resolution will now head to the council chairman and the chief to be ratified. 

A ban on certain drug paraphernalia, including roach clips, was also rescinded, and the legal limit for hash possession also tripled from one-twentieth of an ounce. Sale and cultivation of cannabis remain illegal, however.

The 16,000-member Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the largest federally recognized tribe in the eastern half of the United States. It stretches over 100 square miles in five North Carolina counties. 

For some council members, the decriminalization had much to do with marijuana’s utility in breaking addiction to other drugs. 

“If we had to start all over today, alcohol would be the one that wouldn’t be legal,” said council member Albert Rose. “Cannabis is framed as a highway drug when really it’s alcohol. Cannabis would actually be the exit drug.”

Opioid addiction has wracked this section of Cherokee Nation, which is also referred to as the Qualla Boundary. In 2018, the Office of National Drug Control Policy named it as one of 10 “high-intensity drug trafficking areas” in the United States. 

Hundreds of Cherokee children were taken from prescription drug-addicted parents into tribal custody. It’s estimated that three-quarters of them had to be placed into non-Native homes, effectively separating a large portion of a generation from its community. 

In 2015, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority invested in two new medical facilities to treat addiction. The tribe began a needle exchange program in 2017. 

Then in 2018, the tribe filed a lawsuit against opiate-producing pharmaceutical companies arguing that drug companies aimed deceptive marketing tactics at its members, and influenced doctors to prescribe extremely addictive opiates.

Other council members commented that the decriminalization takes the tribe one step closer to a fuller version of cannabis access.

“Today’s decision by Tribal Council to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis by persons 21 or older is a first step towards better meeting the needs of our citizens who use cannabis as a medicine,” said Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, who was one of the council members who submitted the order. “I join those citizens in applauding the Council for its historic, compassionate and morally upright action.”

“It is a good day,” said Principal Chief Sneed. “I’m excited that tribal leadership has taken this important first step to move us towards a medical cannabis program.”

For others, that could mean a financial boon in a time when the tribe, typically dependent on its faltering casino business, is struggling financially. 

“Now that we are facing times for need of new revenue streams, cannabis fulfills that quest,” said the Eastern Band’s governmental affairs liaison Jeremy Wilson. 

In October, North Dakota’s Oglala Sioux became the first tribe in the country to legalize marijuana in a state where cannabis is still considered totally illegal.



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