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CHEROKEE — At its Thursday, May 5, meeting, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council is slated to take up two increasingly debated issues: the potential of legalizing medicinal marijuana on the tribe’s lands and the autonomy of the tribe’s newspaper.

The agenda items come amidst a wave of changes that has revamped tribal government since elections in September brought in a new principal chief, Patrick Lambert. He replaced 12-year incumbent Michell Hicks, who did not run for reelection but has since become involved in an ongoing set of disputes with Lambert.

While these two hot-button issues on Thursday’s agenda — pot and the press — aren’t exactly mired in the change in administrations, they’re both influenced by recent changes in tribal politics and American society at large.

Making a call on cannabis

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would no longer enforce federal marijuana laws on Native American lands. Tribes across the United States began exploring the potential costs and benefits of getting involved in the legal marijuana trade.

For its part, the EBCI Tribal Council in late October commissioned a study of legalizing marijuana for “medical, industrial and recreational uses for the EBCI.”

Lambert quickly vetoed the move, saying he could consider authorizing medicinal use of the drug but not recreational use. The council reversed itself in December, backing Lambert’s veto unanimously.

In the months since then, a local activist group of mostly young tribe members, Common Sense Cannabis, has been meeting with community groups throughout the reservation and gauging their interest in allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The group says that many tribe members — including members of tribal council — have voiced support for such regulated use of marijuana, calling it within the tradition of Cherokee herbal medicine.

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And indeed, Vice Chief Richard Sneed is the official sponsor of a new resolution crafted with the group to launch a six-month study of how medical marijuana could be adopted as a safe option for tribe members.

The resolution, up for a vote in tribal council on Thursday, May 5, and available below, touts marijuana’s purported positive effects for those suffering with widespread pains and diseases, and the rising number of U.S. states that have made their peace with making it an aboveboard medicine.

It also cites surveys conducted by Common Sense Cannabis of tribe members, who are said to have “responded in favor of the legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes.”

Joey Owle, a tribe member who’s one of the group’s co-founders, said in an interview last week that he’s optimistic about the study’s chances of being authorized.

“So far, our numbers (in the surveys) have come back very positive, with overwhelming support of medicinal,” he told Carolina Public Press. “And that’s the figures we’re going to present to council for them to make their decision.”

Cherokee medical cannabis resolution (PDF)
Cherokee medical cannabis resolution (Text)

Push for a freer press

Also at the May 5 meeting, the Cherokee One Feather, the tribe-owned weekly newspaper, might carve out some new levels of editorial freedom.

One resolution advanced by the newspaper’s editorial board would change the composition of the newspaper’s board to make it less beholden to tribal leaders, whoever is in power.

Another would strike a clause from Cherokee law that mandates that “controversial subjects shall be submitted to the editorial board for consideration and approval prior to publication.” Both of the resolutions can be read in full below.

The One Feather’s editor, Robert Jumper, told CPP last week that the tribe might be entering a new era of openness, with “fresh minds at work in the tribal government.”

“For a period of time in the previous administration, the editorial board, because of how it’s made up, wasn’t very effective,” he said. “It was difficult to have a functional editorial board made up of staff members of the paper which also reported to the hierarchy of the tribe.”

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Cherokee resolution on the newspaper’s editorial board (PDF)
Cherokee resolution on the newspaper’s editorial board (Text)
Cherokee resolution on the newspaper and controversial subjects (PDF)
Cherokee resolution on the newspaper and controversial subjects (Text)

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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