By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is a step closer to establishing a cannabis business for the Tribe as Tribal Council approved legislation (Res. No. 731-2019) establishing a Cannabis Commission. In an 11-1 vote during its regular session on Thursday, Sept. 12, Council voted to establish the Commission following a July report on the feasibility study entitled “Hemp as a Feasible Commodity for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” which listed its establishment as a recommendation. The Commission is activated from Oct. 8, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020.
According to the legislation, the purpose of the Commission will be “to develop an EBCI Hemp Regulation Plan for submission to the USDA; research, draft, and submit to Tribal Council for its review and approval any necessary amendments to the Cherokee Code to support the Tribe’s conduct of lawful activities in the hemp industry and development of economic opportunities for the Tribe in that industry and related industries; develop a long-range plan for the Cannabis Commission or other hemp regulatory industry entity for the Tribe; develop necessary administrative rules for review and approval under tribal law; and develop a long-term economic plan for the Tribe regarding the hemp industry.”
The legislation was submitted by Wolftown Rep. Jeremy Wilson who has been an advocate for the Tribe entering the hemp industry during his term of office on Council. The people approved for the Commission include: Secretary of Agriculture or their designee, Secretary of Treasury or their designee, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority chief executive officer or their designee, Grants and Contracts compliance officer or their designee, a chairman (left blank), and two community representatives – Mary “Missy” Crowe and Richard Bird.
Initially, Rep. Wilson had submitted his name for consideration for the Commission, but Big Cove Rep. Richard French noted that it didn’t seem legal to appoint him to the Board while he was still a Council representative. After discussion, Rep. Wilson’s name was not entered as a member of the Commission, but it was discussed that his name could be entered after the beginning of the next term in October.
The initial legislation had compensation for the Commission at $1,500 a month for the chairman and $1,000 for the rest of the members. After much discussion, that was amended to say that the only ones who will receive compensation are the two community representatives and the chairman – at the amounts listed previously.
As with other discussions regarding cannabis in the past several years, some are staunchly opposed to the Tribe entering into the business.
“First of all, I am opposed to bringing any type of poison to our reservation,” said Doug Pheasant, Cherokee Indian Police Dept. Chief of Police. “We have enough of an opioid problem here now. Why are we even considering to bring anything else here to make a dollar? I think we can find other revenue streams. It’s my job to try to take care of the reservation and enforce these laws…”
He added, “If we establish this Commission and spend all of this money, what are we saying to our people with the drug use and everything else that we’re fighting?”
Rep. Wilson responded, “So, to be clear, this is not about marijuana. This is about hemp. Hemp is perfectly legal. I’ve made this statement clear that I’m not looking to legalize marijuana here on the Boundary. That’s going to be in its own time itself, but what we are focused on is the hemp industry.”
He added, “Hemp is non-psychoactive. You cannot get high off of it. Now, when it comes to smokeable hemp flower, yes it looks and smells the same so it’s a probable cause issue…but, it is legal. You can go buy it from any shop that sells it to you.”
During the presentation to Council on the feasibility study in July, Eric Stahl, Hempleton Investment Group (group that performed the study) vice president of sales, noted that the study focused on industrial hemp which is a strain of Cannabis sativa that contains less than 0.3 percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). “Hemp cannot get you high,” he said then.
Stahl further said that hemp fiber is four times as durable as cotton and can be grown on the same land for 14 years without depletion. There are currently over 1,000 hemp farmers and 600 hemp processors in the state of North Carolina according to him.
During Thursday’s discussion, Rep. Wilson vehemently added, “We have hemp farmers. We have enrolled members who are in this industry already. You have Ric’s Smoke Shop who sells it (CBD products). I can’t be any clearer than that. We’re not trying to go behind anybody’s back to bring in marijuana.”
Secretary Blankenship, who was selected for the Commission, noted, “Just reading the economic statistics on this industry, I think it’s a huge economic opportunity for the Tribe…we’re not talking about medical or recreational marijuana. We’re talking about the hemp industry. So, there’s also a community education component that this Commission would need to execute to talk about that industry and opportunities that exist.”
At the end of the discussion, Ernest Tiger, an EBCI tribal member, told Council he brought the concept to tribal officials before. “As far as the feasibility study goes, I had already completed all of that, and I had provided that to the Tribal Business Committee where it was scoffed at at that time. And now, come two years later, you’re seeing my exact same proposal, that is patent-pending federally, being re-proposed in Council today.”
Rep. Wilson responded, “When Mr. Tiger first brought this up, it was for a medical marijuana dispensary at the old TeePee Restaurant. I had never seen his proposal. He’s never contacted me about his proposal and never said a word to me prior to his offer.”
He added, “This is hemp, not marijuana. What he proposed was medical marijuana. That’s not what I’m proposing.”
Tiger felt that statement was incorrect and threatened legal action against the Tribe. Michael McConnell, EBCI Interim Attorney General stated that his case would have no validity.
Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah, the lone dissenting vote on the legislation, commented prior to the vote, “This has become quite controversial and I hate that for you Jeremy. I just wish you would withdraw it and bring it back once you are out of Council. It would flow better. It would look better for as controversial as it’s getting right now.”