COMMENTARY: Let the madness begin

by Jun 20, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


“The buying and selling of dope in this country may be the last vestige of free enterprise left.”- “Up in Smoke” (1978)

We are a Tribe in cultural and economic transition. We have been, in earnest, since the late 1990s, when our first casino began operation in the same location that our current, and new youth center stands today. Since the inception of adult gaming (not bingo, but the kind you play in Las Vegas) on the Qualla Boundary, much in Cherokee life has changed. Going from a low-double-digit multimillion dollar economy to a mid-triple-digit multimillion dollar economy, on an annual basis, has to bring some freedom and change to a community.

And in reading the history, for many, it was unwanted change. The decision to become casino operators was a painful one for our community. Traditionalists saw potential for losing long honored values. They feared for the generations to come and what it would look like to be Cherokee in the future, or if there would be even a remnant of the culture they had known for decades and had been handed down for thousands of years.

The tribal election following the decision to join other tribes in taking advantage of adult gaming opportunities passed into law by the federal government was a tumultuous one, to say the least. The entirety of the Executive Office and nearly all the seated Tribal Council lost their seats, along with the Tribe’s head attorney, and, in one report I read, the editor of the One Feather. That is one reason that I personally am not fond of taking sides and strive to have the One Feather be as impartial on issues as possible. Not only is it the ethical thing to do, but it is also the safest. It is much more important that the community’s voice is heard than for me to be a lobbyist.

Even with all the “improvements” we have seen as a result of the influx of dollars, there are still those who will say that we gave up something more valuable than money in transitioning our community to a casino economy.

In “Cherokee Americans” (University of Nebraska Press 1991), author John Finger states, “The Eastern Band’s identity varies considerably, depending on the groups or individuals involved. The benefits derived from the federal attachment and especially tourism will probably sustain at least a generalized Cherokee identity for the immediate future. But the larger reality is that virtually all tribal members understand that their identity is subsumed within a national context. The twentieth century has sometimes brought painful rapprochement between them and the American government. They value their citizenship and the opportunities of modern America. Like their (non-Native) neighbors, they shamelessly lobby their congressmen and senators, vote according to self-interest, and accept the many federal benefits. In return they offer allegiance and present themselves as modern-day warriors ready to defend-and perhaps die for-America’s institutions. They have endured the changing currents of Indian policy, adjusted as necessary, argued among themselves, survived, and in the end called themselves both Cherokees and Americans.”

It is this relationship between the Eastern Band and federal government that makes our foray into the area of cannabis as a cash crop so interesting. I was once told that I try to sound smarter than I am, so here is my disclaimer: I am no expert on the legality of weed as a source of income for tribes. But here are a few tidbits of information that I do know. The Tribe recently enacted law that makes 1.5 ounces of marijuana to be legal to possess on the Qualla Boundary. This was done, according to the video recording of the Tribal Council session, to facilitate the construction of additional law with the end goal of the Tribe getting into the cannabis business as a supplier of medical marijuana. During the session, the Tribal Council asked the hard questions about the intent of those activists promoting tribal adoption of cannabis as a cash crop, for medicinal purposes, of course. The Council was assured that this step was intended only to get to the point of making cannabis medical cards available to those who would be prescribed it by a physician. The effect, however, was to eliminate any ability for law enforcement to inquire about the intent of possessing up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. So, the Council, in enacting law with the purpose of making medical use easier to obtain, also facilitated recreational use.

How about those inter-state and inter-federal relationships? Concerning North Carolina law (from, “Is weed legal in NC? No, and the answer won’t change anytime soon. Even though it seems that new states are legalizing recreational marijuana every year, it does not appear that North Carolina will be one of them in the near future. This is because North Carolina state law forbids residents from getting issues put on the ballot through gathering signatures on petitions. This means that it is up to the lawmakers and not the general population as to what does and does not appear on the ballot. People are therefore not particularly optimistic about North Carolina weed legalization anytime soon.”

So, on the Boundary, you would be legal, off the Boundary, not so much.

What if you are in Tennessee and want to pop over to Cherokee lands for cannabis and then go home? “Possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and maximum fine of $2,500. A $250 fine is required for all first-time convictions. A subsequent offense brings a $500 mandatory minimum fine.” (

Maybe Georgia? “Possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $1000, or public works for up to 12 months. Possession of over an ounce is a felony punishable by a minimum of 1 and maximum of ten years imprisonment” (

Well, how about South Carolina, the last remaining bordering state to the Boundary? “Possession of 1 ounce or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 days imprisonment and a fine of $100-$200. A conditional release based upon participation in the pretrial intervention program may be granted. A subsequent conviction for possession of 1 ounce or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of 1 year imprisonment and a maximum fine of $2,000.” (

So, I checked for federal passes or penalties for marijuana possession. “Possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. For a second conviction, the penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Subsequent convictions carry a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of up to three years in prison and a fine of $5,000.” ( Additional note: federal law, according to, does not distinguish between medical and recreational marijuana.

In the August 2021 session of Tribal Council, the Tribe moved to begin the process of establishing medical marijuana as a cash crop, or additional revenue stream. A Cannabis Control Board has been established to set policy and carry out the mission of production and development. During the June 2022 session of Tribal Council, questions were raised about the status of the plants themselves; how is the crop doing? The Council immediately went into closed session, citing that listening ears and seeking eyes might be there to want to know how big our marijuana plants were. I guess there is some validity to that.  We may be in competition with other entities for the services of a medical marijuana facility. But the justifications were more along that line. Decisions, at least the publicly aired ones, were more about the profit than it was about the compassionate care of those in need of the marijuana for medical needs. It looks like we, as community members, aren’t going to know much about what is going on with cannabis for a while.  And I am not sure that we should be okay with that.

For example, would you want the cannabis growing or processing operation to be near a facility where children routinely visit? That would never happen, you say? Keep in mind that 10 or 20 years ago, the thought of alcohol being legal on the Boundary was an idea that would have been laughed at, especially if you told tribal members that it would be put next to a church. Now, we have an ABC store across from a Baptist church downtown. With the limited land mass that we have to work with, I am betting that no plan is “off the table”. We don’t know where it is being grown if it is being grown. We don’t know how long it has been grown and how big our crop is. We really don’t know much about it, except that over a half million dollars is on the table to pay the annual salary of a cannabis board and facilitate operations. At least for the time being, all we are going to hear is “it is going to be great, trust me.”

Again, I am not an expert in this area, and I am guessing you aren’t either. I have never used marijuana. I guess I drank the Kool-Aid back in the day when the schools were showing “Reefer Madness” and similar education films, showing teenagers losing control and causing havoc after having marijuana parties. After seeing those films, I would get nervous just being near weed seeds, let alone a joint.

I am not pointing at cannabis and making judgement. It may be as great for the Tribe as we are hearing. But all I can do is hope so. Because we are using our normal level of transparency on this project, which is, in my opinion, little to none.