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In an image from the live stream of Tribal Council’s meeting, Common Sense Cannabis organizers (left to right) Joey Owle, Yona Wade and Aaron Hogner, all of whom spoke in favor of legalizing medicinal marijuana.

CHEROKEE — After months of debate, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council yesterday approved a plan to pursue legalizing medicinal marijuana, at least for tribal members on the tribe’s lands.

The plan is a relatively small step, compared to what a local activist group, Common Sense Cannabis, had hoped for after the U.S. Justice Department last summer freed Native American tribes to plot their own course on regulating the drug.

But it’s also one born of extensive local deliberation, in a community wracked with elevated levels of drug abuse, as was clear at the council meeting. Elected officials and citizens voiced both concerns and hopes about the marijuana initiative.

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In the end, a distinction between recreational and medical uses of the drug drove the discussion — along with occasional mentions of how legal weed might prove to be a cash cow for the Cherokee, as the previously prohibited gambling operations have been since they were authorized by the state in the mid ’90s.

“Yes, go medicinal”

“Whereas, scientific evidence suggests that cannabis is one potential therapy that may mitigate suffering in some patients and also enhance quality of life,” begins the newly passed resolution.

It ends with a directive that, within six months, the EBCI’s Attorney General’s Office, in collaboration with representatives of Common Sense Cannabis, “draft a medical marijuana ordinance to establish a medical marijuana law that would allow qualified tribal members to have regulated access to medical cannabis that is produced and provided on tribal trust lands.”

EBCI Vice Chief Richard Sneed sponsored the resolution but was in Raleigh on official business during the council hearing. Common Sense Cannabis spokesperson Joey Owle read a statement from Sneed.

“Plants being used as medicine is not a new concept to the Cherokee people,” the statement said, in part. “It’s what we have always understood and practiced.” It went on to stress the potential medical benefits of marijuana.

Owle and two other organizers of Common Sense Cannabis reported that they’ve attended a series of community meetings where they polled tribe members and found a widespread openness to medicinal marijuana.

“The plants around us, every one of them were given to us, and every one of them had medicine,” Teresa McCoy, one of the council members who spoke in favor of the plan, said. “Yes, go medicinal. But it’s not time to discuss recreational” use of the drug, whatever the new federal exemptions, she added.

As McCoy and others also noted the potential financial gain to the tribe that could come from producing and selling legal marijuana, other council members noted some uneasiness with the idea. Contradictory feelings about the proposition of legalization have shadowed the debate in Cherokee from the start.

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Common Sense Cannabis’ initial effort last fall sought a study of how marijuana might find medical, industrial and recreational uses on the reservation, a spectrum of possibilities briefly endorsed by the council. But a council resolution authorizing such a study was promptly vetoed by Principal Chief Patrick Lambert in a move that the council, reversing itself, fully endorsed.

“Back in the early 1970s, pot was the drug of choice; I raised kids back then so I remember,” said council member Tommye Saunooke at yesterday’s meeting. “It always frightens me when we legalize something that we were taught is bad.

“But if that would alleviate some of the painkillers,” she added, referencing prescription pain med abuse on the reservation, “that would help.”

Push for a freer press

Anticipated action by the tribal council on granting greater latitude to the tribe-owned newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather, was postponed. The tribe’s attorney general is now expected to be more heavily involved in crafting any such process.

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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