‘Sovereign flex’: How a tribe defied officials through cannabis

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says opening a dispensary is an act of sovereignty. But North Carolina officials have sought to restrict sales.

An Indigenous employee reaches between rows of marijuana plants.
An employee moves a flowering marijuana plant onto a display table in Cherokee, North Carolina [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
An employee moves a flowering marijuana plant onto a display table in Cherokee, North Carolina [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

Cherokee, North Carolina – In a converted bingo hall deep in the Appalachian Mountains, Myrtle Driver led the charge to defy the state of North Carolina.

The spry 80-year-old, a venerated member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, handed a cashier a string of purple wampum beads, a traditional Indigenous currency. In return, she received packets of marijuana pre-rolls and edibles.

With that, Driver made the first purchase at the Great Smoky Cannabis Company superstore, the only seed-to-sale Indigenous weed operation in a part of the United States where marijuana is illegal.

Members of the tribe cheered and wiped away tears. Then, the store’s doors opened to the 800 customers lined up outside in the rain, each with a card certifying they were approved to buy medical marijuana.

They were Indigenous, Black and white. They were Republicans and Democrats. Some were even on crutches. One construction worker drove nine hours from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just to show support.

All were seeking regulated legal weed, even if it was only legal on the tribe’s 57,000-acre territory, known as the Qualla Boundary.

By defying North Carolina authorities, the band says it is exercising its right to set its own rules, as it did before white men came to this land.

“We’re not asking permission from the state; we’re telling them,” explained Forrest Parker, the general manager of Qualla Enterprises LLC, the tribal-run cannabis outfit that oversees the business.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is one of 574 federally recognised tribes in the US, each with inherent sovereignty: In other words, they have the right to self-govern.

To the US government, that means tribal land falls under federal jurisdiction — but not state authority.

The cannabis superstore, however, has rankled some Republican legislators in North Carolina, who have been pushing the federal government to intercede on their behalf. That raises questions about the limits of tribal sovereignty — and whose authority should prevail on Indigenous land.

“It’s unique — a real sovereign flex,” John Oceguera, a cannabis lobbyist and former Nevada legislator from the Walker River Paiute tribe, said of the superstore as he watched from the sidelines as customers filed in.

Republican opposition

Myrtle Driver, a Beloved Woman and tribal elder, spreads out a purple handkerchief on a table, with strings of wampum beads sitting inside.
Myrtle Driver, 80, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, shows the wampum beads she used for the dispensary's first purchase [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
Myrtle Driver, 80, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, shows the wampum beads she used for the dispensary's first purchase [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

The dispensary launched on April 20, a date known among aficionados as 4/20, a holiday for marijuana enthusiasts.

But the store’s opening — and its plans to expand into recreational marijuana over the next few months — has drawn the ire of Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Ted Budd.

Right before the dispensary opened, the two senators, who represent North Carolina in the US Congress, sent a letter urging government agencies to enforce state and federal laws prohibiting marijuana.

“In recent months, we have heard directly from North Carolinians who have communicated their concerns about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Qualla Enterprise LLC establishing an operation to produce, cultivate and sell marijuana,” they wrote.

“As our nation is facing an unprecedented drug crisis that is harming our communities, it is vital to learn what measures your departments and agencies are taking to uphold current federal and state laws.”

However, experts say the senators have little recourse to close the dispensary. Instead, any efforts that federal and state law enforcement may take will likely focus on sussing out any potential violations of federal gaming and cannabis regulations.

Separately, Congressman Chuck Edwards of North Carolina introduced last September the Stop Pot Act, citing the Eastern Band’s plans to legalise marijuana on tribal land.

If passed, the bill would withhold certain federal funds from states and tribes that permit the use of recreational marijuana.

“The laws of any government should not infringe on the overall laws of our nation, and federal funds should not be awarded to jurisdictions that willfully ignore federal law,” Edwards said.

'Is it sovereign land?'

Employees and members of the Cherokee nation gather in front of the Great Smoky Cannabis Company, a brown single-story building.
Employees of Great Smoky Cannabis Company pose for a photograph on April 19, a day before the dispensary's opening [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
Employees of Great Smoky Cannabis Company pose for a photograph on April 19, a day before the dispensary's opening [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

Those attacks, however, have failed to close down operations at the Great Smoky Cannabis Company.

But they have galvanised other tribes to stand with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with the view that any interference could be an attack on Indigenous sovereignty.

Six tribes in Wisconsin issued a statement of support after the senators sent their letter in March. An inter-tribal gathering at the Qualla Boundary was also held to show solidarity earlier this month.

If the Eastern Band’s venture can avoid being shut down, advocates say, it could set an example for other Indigenous nations angling to get into the legal cannabis market, worth an estimated $35bn in the US.

“The move has gotten the attention of tribes like in Idaho where they thought they wouldn’t have a chance,” said Mary Jane Oatman, a Nez Perce woman who helms the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association, a national advocacy group. “It offers a model for an organised pathway.”

Oatman and other advocates believe a “green gold rush” from marijuana sales has the potential to benefit tribes, which steward land across the US.

The vast majority of that territory — an estimated 22.7 million hectares (56.2 million acres) — is considered “trust land”: The federal government holds the title to the territory “in trust” for an individual or tribe.

That muddies the question of who can exercise authority over the land, according to Courtney Lewis, a Cherokee professor of anthropology at Duke University.

“What is put into trust technically falls under federal law. But is it sovereign land or federal?” she said.

Raids on Indigenous land

An Indigenous employee inspects marijuana plants in a greenhouse.
The marijuana plants at Great Smoky Cannabis Company are grown from genetically modified seeds [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
The marijuana plants at Great Smoky Cannabis Company are grown from genetically modified seeds [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

Further complicating matters is the ambiguous stance the US government has taken towards marijuana use, possession and distribution.

Cannabis is illegal on the federal level, but approximately 41 states and the District of Columbia allow for either medicinal or recreational use.

Then there are questions of enforcement. With each new president comes a different approach to upholding federal law.

The administration of President Barack Obama, for instance, adopted a policy encouraging prosecutors to leave states and tribes that legalised marijuana alone. But under Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy, though no action was ultimately taken against the tribes.

Other measures have also cast a chill over Indigenous efforts to regulate marijuana on tribal land.

In 2017, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent federal officers to raid a facility growing medical marijuana at Picuris Pueblo, an Indigenous community in northern New Mexico.

That happened despite the fact that the state had legalised medicinal marijuana in 2007, and the tribe decriminalised its use for members in 2015.

A second swoop at Picuris Pueblo came in 2021, with agents confiscating marijuana plants from a home garden. Earlier that same year, New Mexico had enacted a law allowing residents to grow up to 12 plants for personal use.

Fearing crackdowns, the nearly 100 tribes that operate regulated cannabis operations in some fashion — whether testing, selling, growing or processing — have largely opened in states that allow marijuana use.

Some tribes have also signed compacts with the states to set terms about how the cannabis will be produced and distributed. Those compacts include agreements about how to tax marijuana products and tracking systems to monitor the supply chain.

But the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has moved forward on its own, brushing aside the pushback from its own state.

Mere days after the Great Smoky Cannabis Company launched, the administration of President Joe Biden moved to re-classify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, opening the door for it to be used for research and medicine.

The drug, however, remains illegal on the federal level. And the new classification could be reversed by a subsequent administration.

A high-minded investment

Myrtle Driver and another member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hold up a package of marijunana infused edibles, labelled in the traditional Cherokee language.
Myrtle Driver, bestowed with the title of 'Beloved Woman' in her tribe, helped to translate the different varieties of marijuana products into the Cherokee language [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
Myrtle Driver, bestowed with the title of 'Beloved Woman' in her tribe, helped to translate the different varieties of marijuana products into the Cherokee language [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

So far, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has spent more than $35m on its cannabis operation, investing in state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure. It’s a pittance compared with the projected gross sales of $208m for the first year.

The 3,000-square-metre (10,000-square-foot) store flashes with neon signs. Inside the chef’s kitchen, cooks infuse sweets with THC, one of the compounds in cannabis that creates a high.

On the 22-acre farm down the road, 44 strains of plants flourish in greenhouses. Machinery in chilled rooms process extracts for edibles, lotions and vapes.

To make the dispensary profitable, the tribe is counting on clientele from nearby tourist attractions. While far from any major city — Charlotte, Atlanta and Knoxville are all more than three hours away — this lush stretch of North Carolina is popular with hikers and gamblers.

Some come to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Others travel to stay at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the 1,833-room resort the tribe owns in the area.

The casino is a big earner for the tribe, boasting more than four million visitors each year. But the dispensary has created 100 new jobs for community members, with that number expected to rise to 500.

That has created a buzz among some of the dispensary’s younger employees, some of whom told Al Jazeera they used to sell weed on the down-low before its opening.

“I’ve worked with cannabis for a long time, and this is the first time I’m doing it with, and for, my tribe,” said cashier Eric Bird, 34. He smoothed his uniform and choked up. “It’s a dream come true.”

Ramsey Hamide, a prominent cannabis retailer from Vancouver, Washington, who consulted on the project, watched as employees, young and old, walked around with trays of samples and took selfies in front of potted cannabis bushes.

“I’ve opened more than a handful of stores, and this level of community buy-in is unique,” he said. “After 10 years in the industry, one gets jaded, but to see the impact in terms of economic diversification and job creation is incredible.”

'What the tribe wants'

An employee stands between rows of marijuana bushes in a greenhouse.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hopes to expand sales to include recreational use in the coming months [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hopes to expand sales to include recreational use in the coming months [Robert Nickelsberg/Al Jazeera]

That buy-in has been growing, even outside of the dispensary. Just last September, 70 percent of tribal members voted in favour of a referendum to permit recreational marijuana use.

That built on an earlier decision, in 2021, to allow medical marijuana on the Qualla Boundary land.

A minority in the community feared introducing a marijuana business would increase crime and drug use on the reservation. Some also worried about a possible crackdown by authorities or were concerned that the venture might not earn enough to justify the big investment.

But Richard French, chair of the tribal health board, said the high number of people who voted in favour was significant. “This is what the tribe wants,” he said.

A local district attorney warned, however, that people could still be prosecuted if they took their marijuana purchases off Cherokee land.

“In North Carolina, the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana remains illegal, and we will continue to enforce state law off Qualla Boundary,” District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch said in a statement.

But so far, state troopers appear to be taking a hands-off approach. No customers have been arrested leaving the site. In fact, staff said the local sheriff, Curtis Cochran, toured the facility with highway patrolmen before the opening. They left with swag: T-shirts and child-proof bags.

Still, Cochran told the local TV channel ABC4 he would not hesitate to make arrests outside of Qualla Boundary.

“They need to educate their people up there that, when they come off the boundary, they’re in a different world,” he said.

The dispensary’s new patrons, however, do not seem too worried. Amputee Donny Watkins, 60, lives 20 miles away in Clyde, North Carolina. He said he was thrilled to finally buy regulated medical marijuana close by.

Before, he had to leave the state for the tincture that relieves the pain he has from a motorcycle accident.

“I’ve been to psychiatrists and taken pills but only cannabis calms the body,” he said, gesturing at his prosthetic leg.

Was he scared of arrest? Not at all. “It’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

Source: Al Jazeera