North Carolina is one of the few remaining states that do not allow medical or recreational weed. But a historic vote may change that. Cherokee tribal members have voted for recreational marijuana. If the legislation goes through, their reservation will be the only place for North Carolina legal weed.

Vote to Make the Cherokee Reservation the Only Place for North Carolina Legal Weed

The vote to legalize weed on the reservation took place on Sept. 7, 2023. 2464 tribal members voted for recreational marijuana. 1057 voted against it.

The vote is not binding. Legislation is still pending on voter approval. But the Tribal Council supports the North Carolina legal weed bill.

In 2021, the Eastern Band of the tribe voted to legalize medical marijuana. They are just now working on opening dispensaries to serve qualifying patients. The step to legalize recreational weed is an even bigger one for the Cherokee to take.

Arguments for and Against North Carolina Legal Weed

The tribe has established Qualla Enterprises, LLC, a not-for-profit that runs its medical marijuana business. The organization argues that North Carolina legal weed would create 400 jobs in the community and generate “extraordinary revenue.”

“The demand to work with Qualla is both overwhelming and humbling; Qualla has received hundreds of job applications, and that number grows each week,” the organization stated in a piece run in the tribe’s official newspaper, Cherokee One Feather.

Those who are against the bill argue that weed is damaging to young people’s mental health.

“Today’s commercial marijuana products are associated with depression, suicidality, IQ loss and most recently psychosis and schizophrenia, especially for young people,” Dr. Kevin Sabet, President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, wrote in a recent news release.

Sabet’s statement was released from the office of Rep. Chuck Edwards, a Republican congressman who represents most of Western North Carolina. He has launched the Stop Pot Act as part of his campaign against tribal legalization. It proposes to withhold 10% of federal highway funds from tribes that allow recreational North Carolina legal weed.

Edwards says his act would “prevent even greater access to drugs and ease the strain placed on our local law enforcement and mental health professionals who are already stretched thin.”

Qualla Enterprise leaders responded to negative commentary. “Numerous studies have identified several other ways that Adult Use Cannabis decreases crimes and promotes public health and order,” they said.

The organization is referring to 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research findings that show little evidence of recreational marijuana linked to harder drugs and violent activity.

Some studies show that recreational marijuana use can even reduce crime and other drug use. 2021 research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health revealed a 6% reduction in opioid-related emergency room visits in the four states that had recreational weed at the time as compared to states where weed was not legal.

Will There Ever Be North Carolina Legal Weed?

Legalization is sweeping the nation. 24 states have fully legalized cannabis. 15 have legalized medical marijuana. That leaves just 12 states where marijuana is legal- and North Carolina is one of them.

But will there ever be a day when we see North Carolina legal weed? The issue has been brought to legislation, but it has never passed.

In 2022, two North Carolina legal weed bills were brought to the N.C. General Assembly. Senate Bill 711, AKA the NC Compassionate Care Act, would not tax medical marijuana patients. The state would earn income from license sales and a percentage of the distributor’s gross revenues.

The other is Senate Bill 765 which would legalize possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana for people over 21. It would impose a 21% sales tax and a 3% local government tax on all cannabis products being sold. The money would be used to fund drug disorder treatment and prevention programs.

The funds would also be donated to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to pay for employment and education opportunities for people who have been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement measures.

The bill would also allow expungements for minor marijuana-related convictions.

Updates on North Carolina Legal Weed Bills

Bill 711 passed the Senate but died in the House. However, a new bill, Senate Bill 3, has taken its place. It legalizes medical marijuana for patients with HIV, AIDs, PTSD, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. It too has passed the Senate, but it has not yet made it to the House.

Bill 765 also died in the house at the end of the year. There is no word on whether another bill to legalize recreational weed will be introduced. But it’s likely to happen at some point in time.

Tribes Have Special Rights

The Cherokee tribe in North Carolina is not the only one that has established marijuana laws that counter state laws. Tribes have the right to make laws because they are sovereign nations. They can use tribal law to legalize marijuana.

However, it’s not unusual for state governments to interfere with tribal laws. For example, in 2018, California tribes were unable to get cannabis licensing approval. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control asked for full regulatory control of cannabis operations on reservations despite its being a violation of the tribe’s sovereignty rights.

The federal government has also been accused of interfering with tribal rights. For example, a raid conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on small cannabis gardens of medical marijuana patients in New Mexico was criticized as a misappropriation of taxpayers’ dollars. It is also believed that federal prohibition limits tribal market growth.

The government asserts that it wishes to partner with tribes to ensure cannabis markets are conducted safely. But there is always a risk that they will step over the line.