A Republican congressman from North Carolina is urging members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to reject a referendum next month that would legalize marijuana on tribal land, warning that the move would mean a loss of federal funding under a bill he plans to introduce.
In an op-ed published last week in The Cherokee One Feather, Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-NC) acknowledged that Congress cannot stop the EBCI referendum, set for September 7, from going forward. But he appealed to the tribe’s members to vote against it.
“I proudly consider the tribe my friends, and I respect their tribal sovereignty,” the freshman House member wrote. “But there are times when friends disagree, and I must do so regarding this question of legalizing recreational marijuana. The tribe’s rights should not infringe on the overall laws of our nation.”
Passage of the legalization referendum would bring legal cannabis sales within a short drive of many people in North Carolina, where both medical and adult-use marijuana remain illegal under state law. Sales on EBCI land under the proposal would be open to all adults 21 and older, regardless of tribal membership. And as Edwards noted, the tribe has land holdings “all over western North Carolina.”
“To allow our citizens to travel only a few miles to buy and use this common gateway drug,” wrote Edwards, who opposed cannabis reform in North Carolina during his time as a state senator, “would be irresponsible, and I intend to stop it.”
On September 7th, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana for sale and use on its tribal lands.
— Congressman Chuck Edwards (@RepEdwards) August 18, 2023
The lawmaker claimed legalization would lead to more impaired driving, “drug tourism,” the sale of hard drugs and unspecified “criminal activity that would inevitably follow.”
While the U.S. legally cannot block the tribe from passing its own laws around marijuana, Edwards threatened to cut federal funding from the tribe if legalization proceeds. He said he will “soon be introducing” legislation in Congress called the Stop Pot Act, which would “defund governments that ignore federal law.”
“It is important that the tribe understands they will be voting on a measure that, if enacted, could soon be very costly,” Edwards wrote. However he said he intends to pursue the Stop Pot Act regardless of whether the EBCI referendum passes.
Edwards’s office did not immediately respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for a copy of the forthcoming bill, but in theory, it would cut federal funding not only to EBCI but also to any other jurisdiction where cannabis is legal, including many U.S. states.
But as Edwards wrote, he believes those states “are thumbing their proverbial noses at federal laws that declare pot as a Schedule 1 substance… And Congress has sat idly by and watched it happen.”
EBCI, one of three federally recognized Cherokee groups, is a comparatively wealthy tribe, owning its land outright and earning sizable profits from gaming. However it also receives a significant amount of money from the U.S. government, for example $160 million under the American Rescue Plan in 2021.
The roughly 14,000-member tribe previously decriminalized marijuana possession in 2021 and began putting together a medical marijuana program. And despite delays getting that system off the ground, leaders of the tribe’s marijuana business said recently that they’ve already grown $25 million worth of product.
Part of the existing production plan involves transporting cannabis along a short stretch of state-owned roadway, which North Carolina officials say presents a problem.
“This is an issue that the tribe and local law enforcement need will need to work out,” state Attorney General Josh Stein (D) told local WLOS-TV.
Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said that he has “had several conversations with the chief, tribal attorney and others about the transportation of cannabis.”
“I stated that until North Carolina changes the law, that it is still illegal to possess or transport marijuana on the highway,” he said.
Tribal governments in a number of U.S. states have entered the marijuana business as more jurisdictions continue to legalize. Notably, in Minnesota, where state lawmakers passed an adult-use marijuana program earlier this year, tribes are leading the way.
The White Earth Nation voted late last month to authorize marijuana sales and has since opened an adult-use cannabis shop. And the Red Lake Nation recently announced plans to launch a mobile marijuana retailer—effectively a cannabis “food truck” that can travel and do business on tribal land throughout the state.
Under Minnesota’s marijuana laws, the state’s governor can also enter into compacts with tribal governments, allowing them to operate on non-tribal land within the state. Many have seen that option as a way to allow the sale of legal cannabis in Minnesota ahead of state licensing, which isn’t expected until 2025. Cannabis regulators said last week that “several” tribes have expressed interest in the arrangement so far.
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