North Carolina medical marijuana sales begin at Cherokee store

CHEROKEE, N.C. — Medical marijuana can now be legally purchased in North Carolina with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opening its long-planned dispensary this weekend on tribal land.

Hundreds of people, many with approved medical patient cards to purchase items, celebrated the historic opening of the Great Smoky Cannabis Co. on Saturday within the Eastern Band land known as the Qualla Boundary, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported. Saturday was April 20, which is also known as “420 Day,” or an annual day for the celebration of marijuana.

The ceremony marks the latest liberalization of marijuana rules by the tribe, which in 2021 decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana within its 89 square miles (231 square kilometers) of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tribe also formed a medical marijuana system that included a tribe-created business to grow cannabis and sell it, reaping financial rewards for the tribal members and assisting those with medical conditions.

“This project will change the trajectory of their lives forever,” Forrest Parker, general manager for Qualla Enterprises, the tribal company that manages the dispensary, said during the opening ceremony. “It will be a conduit to generations of social, economic and spiritual growth, unlike anything that’s ever been witnessed.”

The Eastern Band, with about 14,000 members, can pass rules permitting cannabis as a sovereign nation and federally recognized tribe. Marijuana use remains illegal in the rest of North Carolina. Still, Republican U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd have raised concerns with federal and state law enforcement about whether drug laws will continue to be carried out in light of the dispensary. A statewide medical marijuana bill has been considered in recent years by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Adults at least 21 years of age with a tribe medical cannabis patient card or an out-of-state approved medical marijuana card can purchase items at Great Smoky Cannabis Co.

The scope of marijuana sales could become much greater. A majority of Eastern Band voters backed in a referendum last September the adult, recreational use of marijuana on tribal land. The question also asked whether voters supported the tribal council to develop legislation to regulate such a market.

The Charlotte Observer reported that an adult use ordinance could be finalized in June, citing council member Boyd Owle.

“Let’s get it right before we put it out there. But we’re on the right track,” Owle said after a council work session on the ordinance earlier this month.

The dispensary could generate over $200 million in gross sales revenues in its first year if limited to medical patients, compared with $385 million if the product is available to all adult users, according to figures from Qualla Enterprises released before last year’s adult-use referendum.

Saturday’s ceremony featured tribal translator Myrtle Driver Johnson purchasing the first medical marijuana in a transaction made in English and Cherokee. She said that she had named and translated the different strains of cannabis into Cherokee.

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