North Carolina Tribe to Vote on Recreational Cannabis

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will soon vote on whether to legalize recreational cannabis on tribal lands in North Carolina.

by Rowan Nathan · July 18, 2023

In a state with some of the harshest penalties for weed, the measure; if successful would become the first and only place in North Carolina where adults can buy and smoke weed.

In a state known for tobacco and Micheal Jordan, an adult use dispensary operating in North Carolina would be akin to operating a nightclub in mormon-majority Salt Lake City (there are no nightclubs although there are medical marijuana dispensaries in Salt Lake City.


The tribe had already approved and are planning to open what officials call the world’s largest medical cannabis dispensary superstore on its 57,000 acre land Qualla Boundary, in the western part of the state. With cultivation of medical marijuana already proceeding, original plans called for the tribe to issue regulated medical cards to eligible adults to buy from the dispensary. The retail operation is poised to be the first and only place to legally purchase marijuana in North Carolina.

However there is now momentum from tribal members supporting an adult-use referendum. EBCI Tribal Council voted Thursday to hold the vote during the Sept. 7 tribal general election to potentially leapfrog medical plans expecting the referendum could lead to recreational marijuana sales.

The referendum going to voters says adult use would apply to anyone 21 and older. No language in the referendum limits adult use to tribal members.

If approved, the Sept. 7 referendum requires the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the tribe’s cannabis. “Responsibly expanding and streamlining cannabis sales is a critical part of economic development and a means to provide revenue to the Tribe,” according to the resolution. “The Tribe has positioned its people to maximize all medical, social and economic benefits from tested, safe and regulated cannabis.”

The Charlotte Observer reports that Tribal Council member Teresa McCoy, who represents the EBCI’s Big Cove/Tow String community, submitted the resolution Thursday that calls for the referendum. “If our voters say no, they don’t want adult use, then let’s fly in there and get that medicinal,” McCoy told fellow council members Thursday. “If they say they do want adult use, then move forward. It’s that simple. I’m not for or against it.”

Qualla Boundary lies 46 miles west of Asheville with a population of roughly 9,600, 77% Native American, 23% non-Native, according to the latest census. EBCI has 14,000 total members.


Cannabis dispensaries run on tribal land have been gaining traction in the United States in recent years as more and more tribes seek to capitalize on the burgeoning cannabis industry. While the concept of cannabis dispensaries run on tribal land is relatively new, it has a rich history that dates back to the beginnings of American Indian tribal sovereignty.

In the late 18th century, the U.S. government passed a series of laws that sought to limit tribal sovereignty and restrict the sale of cannabis on tribal land. Tribes were prohibited from growing, selling, or distributing marijuana and the federal government threatened to withhold funding from tribes that did not comply. Despite this, some tribes continued to grow and sell cannabis on their land in order to meet the needs of their members.

Over the last decade as US states began legalizing medical and recreational cannabis, many tribes have taken advantage of this by opening cannabis dispensaries on their land. These dispensaries are able to offer products that meet the standards of their respective states’ laws, while still being operated under tribal law. Tribes have been able to use the revenue generated from cannabis dispensary operations to invest in public services, such as healthcare and education. Additionally, the taxes paid on cannabis sales have been used to fund tribal infrastructure and economic development.

Tribal leaders point to Cannabis dispensaries as not only a tool to gain economic independence, but also to reclaim their status as sovereign nations. By operating their own dispensaries, tribes are asserting their sovereignty and helping to create a legal framework for the cannabis industry.

Especially in states like North Carolina, which have no broad legal framework for cannabis, leaving tribes like the Easter Band of Cherokees’ dispensary as the only place selling legal weed.

As more and more states legalize cannabis, it is likely that cannabis dispensaries run on tribal land will continue to grow in popularity. By opening their own dispensaries on reservations, tribes can gain economic independence and ensure that their members have access to safe and regulated cannabis products.