In the weeds: ECBI pushes cannabis dispensary despite setbacks

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is set to open Great Smoky Cannabis Company April 20. The cannabis dispensary located within the Cherokee reservation will be the first to legally distribute recreational marijuana in North Carolina.   

Photo by Madison Hye Long.

Last September ECBI approved a motion to legalize possession and use of marijuana for adults over 21 – a decision that has some lawmakers concerned.  

The dispensary was initially set to open last fall but was delayed when then-Principal Chief Richard Sneed vetoed a $64 million backing loan. Sneed still supports the project but worries about the ability of ECBI to keep up with demand.  

“I have vetoed Ordinance No. 531 not because of its subject matter but because it is not in accord with the regulatory system the Tribe has established to regulate cannabis consumption,” Sneed wrote in a May 4 letter to Council Chairman Richard French. 

Photo courtesy of Qualla Enterprises, LLC.

“As I have stated many times before, I support the medical cannabis program and the Tribe’s efforts to build a cultivation facility and medical cannabis dispensary,” Sneed said, “While there is a way to allow for effective and responsible employee quality control sampling, it is not prudent to allow this issue to fall outside the already existing regulatory framework of the Tribe’s medical cannabis system,” he continued. 

 Qualla Enterprises and ECBI recently created the Cannabis Control Board, a body which will regulate growth and sale of cannabis as well as issuance of distribution licenses and medical cards. The CCB currently relies on employee sampling and has not yet established an official cannabis testing facility. 

 North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd also voiced their concerns about the project in a March 1 letter addressed to the U.S. Attorney General, Department of Justice, North Carolina SBI and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office among others. The senators want to ensure the safety of North Carolina residents in a time of “unprecedented drug crisis.” 

 Budd and Tillis asked the agencies to respond to the multitude of inquiries ranging from liability issues and department compliance to questions of potential criminal activity.  

 SPD Assistant Chief John Thomas foresees some turbulence with the opening of the dispensary. 

 “There’s going to be a lot of confusion. Just because it’s legal to purchase in Cherokee doesn’t mean it’s legal here.” Thomas said. 

 Marijuana-related arrests in North Carolina have steadily decreased since 2018, however the trend doesn’t apply nationally despite many states’ legalization.  

The grow site is located outside the Qualla Boundary near Cooper Creek.

 “Folks coming to the reservation may partake or use marijuana and drive home, so there’s certainly a potential increase in driving while impaired.” Thomas said. 

 Western Carolina University Police Chief Steve Lillard is confident in the ability of his department to adapt to the changing regulations, though he notes a need for preparation across the board. 

 “Hopefully the university will create the opportunity for us to have additional conversations with our other departments on campus who may be affected. We’ll continue to educate the community, and we’ll certainly continue our normal operations,” he said. 

 As lawmakers grapple with regulating the new business, customers patiently wait to get their hands on the first legal cannabis in the state.  

 Savannah Jack is a WCU alumna and director of operations at WNC CBD in Asheville. Jack is hopeful for the success of the Cherokee dispensary but also has her own qualms with the new business. 

 “The natives are trying to uplift themselves and the government is taking away funding – that sets an example,” Jack said. “A lot of places – especially in Western North Carolina – could use that economic boost. I hope that the operation in Cherokee works out well and can be an example for the rest of the state,”  

 The grow site, which sits outside the Qualla Boundary near Cooper creek, currently employs 69 individuals, 74% of whom are ECBI tribal members. Lee Griffin, Qualla Enterprises HR director, expects to need over 300 employees come opening day.  

The 10,000 square foot Tribal bingo building on Bingo Loop road is being converted into retail space for Great Smoky Cannabis Company.

Product must be transported from the grow site to the retail location, a route which crosses a state road in Swain County where marijuana possession remains illegal.  

More than $30 million in product has been harvested but remains unsold due to transport complications.  

ECBI will set an example for all of North Carolina when their cannabis hits the market. A successful operation might eventually lead to legalization at the state level. An unsuccessful operation will reveal any underlying issues in the business.