By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Asst. Editor
Medical cannabis is in the works for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and will be dispensed in 2023. Qualla is the corporation set up to run the business for the Tribe, and the dispensary will be located at a building known to many on the Qualla Boundary – the old Tribal Bingo Building.
“It will be the largest retail center in the world the day we open,” said Forrest Parker, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Qualla Enterprises, LLC general manager.
“We’re not talking about just growing cannabis. We’re talking about growing a large quantity of cannabis. So, that’s a really important piece of this that this company and its partners had to really figure out…there’s a lot of ways to do that.”
He related that all products will be tested and sold in childproof containers and packaging.
The local employment opportunities that are being created with this new enterprise as well are very important to the community. 80 percent of the current cultivation employees are EBCI tribal members. Parker said, “Currently, we are ramping up every month as infrastructure develops, as we build different components of this business cultivation, processing, and retail we are adding resources and manpower. We’re adding skilled positions, we’re adding entry-level positions. We’ve got some really amazing folks that are helping us train, helping us set the bar and develop standards and protocols.”
He said more employment opportunities will become available as the business grows. “Currently, we have 35-40 (employees). We’re actually currently working on these numbers. When the cannabis business is fully operational we will have about 400-500 total jobs. It’s a very impactful employment opportunity for this community as well. These employees are learning jobs that will be high paying, skilled jobs in all aspects of cannabis.”
For information on available jobs, visit: www.ebcicannabis.com.
Parker added, “So, I think in the inception, everybody really understands the magnitude of this opportunity and what it means to the Tribe and the community, both from the medical side as well as the economic impact side. So, for my charge, and our board’s charge, and Qualla, it’s not just, ‘hey, how do we make sure we can grow some cannabis?’. But it’s, how do we grow cannabis in a way that’s cost effective so we can make sure the community sees the financial benefits across the board at the maximum level. We feel like that’s our responsibility.”
In October, President Biden pardoned all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana stating, “As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no long prohibit.” He added, “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
President Biden also, in a substantial shift in federal marijuana policy, requested that the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and the Attorney General initiate an administrative process to review marijuana’s Scheduled 1 classification under Federal law and the CSA beginning the process of rescheduling marijuana at the federal level.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper says he supports pardoning people convicted of marijuana possession and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug. Following President Biden’s announcement, Gov. Cooper spoke to the N.C. Task Force on Racial Equity and Criminal Justice stating, “Conviction of simple possession can mar people’s records for life and maybe even prevent them from getting a job. The General Assembly didn’t pass your recommendations on this last session, but I believe they should. North Carolina should take steps to end this stigma.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said in a statement following President Biden’s announcement, “President Biden is right. People should not have a federal criminal record for something that is legal in an increasing number of states. I look forward to working with the legislature in the coming months to help move North Carolina forward as well. Let’s act – and let’s get it right. That means decriminalizing adult use, expunging past convictions for simple possession, and including strong protection for kids, no advertising, state-controlled sales, and putting North Carolina farmers first.”
With the passage of Ord. No. 539 (2021) on July 8, 2021, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians legalized the allowance of “medicinal use of small amounts of marijuana”. That legislation also created the EBCI Cannabis Advisory Commission which was created “for the purposes of studying issues related to cannabis and making recommendations to the EBCI Cannabis Control Board” as well as creating the EBCI Cannabis Control Board itself – a five-member Board.
Tribal Council approved funding for the Cannabis Control Board recently in the form of Res. No. 421 (2022) which allocates a budget for Fiscal Year 2023 of $984,800 “to be paid from non-net distributable gaming revenues from the Fund Balance of the General Fund as best determined by the EBCI Division of Finance”.
Parker said a lot of work has been put into research and development to maximize the operation. “It’s really hard to think about how you’ve got to grow this much cannabis. How do we do that without just throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at infrastructure, which is often what we see in any project. The R and D (research and development) that took place in the summer really was around how do we produce cannabis with the cheapest infrastructure investments with the lowest monthly cost to develop the most skews regardless of the market – medical, adult use, whatever – where we are able to provide a product to the community in various forms that meets all the needs. We can’t do that with just one style of cultivation. We could, but it doesn’t make sense to fill that whole gap with the most expensive methodology.”
A grow operation is already in place at a site on Cooper’s Creek. Parker noted, “We’re currently working on the plans and funding for a really robust indoor grow. That’s basically the next phase of the project. What that indoor grow will do is it will absolutely provide us with all of the grade A quality indoor flower that we need to then combine with the biomass program to then be able to offer to the community an opening date that says, ‘hey, we can open and we are fully confident that not only do we have the skews and the product selection that we need, but also we have the perpetual harvest ongoing that we won’t run out’.”
Originally, Qualla Enterprises, LLC was looking at setting up the grow operation at the site of the old Cherokee High School in the Yellowhill Community. Parker said they heard from various community members who opposed that site. “We wanted the community to have that land back. We made the choice ourselves to make sure that the community had it back.”
He went on to say, “That’s how new, in a way, the cannabis industry is. Even though it’s everywhere – ss of October 2022, 37 states have legalized the medical use of cannabis to varying degrees and 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Just this week, Missouri and Maryland both voted to legalize adult use. Cherokee still has a very specific proprietary way of doing this and we’re already realizing what that looks like. That is the key to us being able to have the confidence to go back to our community and say, ‘hey, you can have confidence in us that we’re doing this the right way and that we can keep scaling this thing’. That’s a really special spot to be in.”
“The second most important thing that the Tribe did, other than stand this thing up as an independent company, is they brought on a partner,” said Parker. “They brought on a managing partner, very similar to the way Caesar’s operates in relationship to the Tribe. We have that same kind of relationship. This managing partnership, these folks have done this very same thing from seed to sale in a vertical market with tribes in multiple states with nothing but success…we pushed it forward because it’s the right thing to do for this community and we were smart enough to bring people on that knew more about it than we did.”
“For me, it is an opportunity to come into something that is extremely resourced with knowledge. To have, on all accounts, no matter how you measure it, if you really dig in and look, the people that are involved in this project from the cannabis industry, this is the strongest group of humans combined in one project that you will find anywhere in the cannabis space anywhere, worldwide. That is extremely special and it’s hard to really quantify how important that is for Cherokee.”
When asked when the dispensary will open, Parker said, “The dispensary will open in 2023 when we are confident that we have perpetual harvest in place to continually supply that market. So, that’s dictated by a couple things – resources, developed infrastructure we need to finish out this project development, the regulatory side of it, of course…the economic impact is driven by the number of people who can legally walk in and buy it. So, the economic impact in the medical market is much different than adult use.”
The EBCI’s foray into the cannabis industry has taken multiple attempts with community thoughts on the subject not always being favorable. Parker addressed these concerns, “Everyone has to come about cannabis their own way, that’s what I’ve learned. As a member of this community, I feel like having a pretty decent handle on our community, loving my people and loving this community, we’re feeling nothing but a lot of support. We’re hearing a lot of great things and it’s very obvious that, even though I know because of my travels and my experiences how special cannabis has been in communities all across the world, especially medical. The things that it brings are so special. The people that don’t understand or may not be pro-cannabis…I’ve got nothing but respect for you. And I want this opportunity and our team to be just a small piece of the pie that helps people understand that cannabis may not be for you, just like Benadryl may not be for you. If you and I get a headache, you may take ibuprofen and I might take Tylenol.”
The Mayo Clinic states, “Studies report that medical cannabis has possible benefit for several conditions.” Some of those include: Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy and seizures, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and muscle spasms, severe and chronic pain, and severe nausea or vomiting caused by cancer treatment.
Parker commented on the benefits, “If cannabis isn’t for you, no problem, but you have to respect the science and you can’t say it’s not for someone else. I think it’s our responsibility to not make it hard for other people who can benefit from using it.”
Parker is looking at the big picture for what this business could do for the Tribe. “All of us that are born and raised here, we love our people, we love our community, and we love our Tribe. What could be better for us than being able to benefit those people?”