As the days grow closer to the opening of a Cherokee Indian-planned marijuana superstore in western North Carolina, the state’s Republican U.S. senators have questions about how communities in the state will be kept safe.

Sens. Ted Budd and Thom Tillis sent a letter on March 1 to eight law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney Gen. Merrick Garland, Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran, Ashley Hornsby Welch, district attorney for NC’s 43rd Prosecutorial District, including Swain County, and NC State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier regarding the planned April 20 opening of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) dispensary, which will be in the tribe’s old bingo hall.

“In recent months, we have heard directly from North Carolinians who have communicated their concerns about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and Qualla Enterprise LLC establishing an operation to produce, cultivate, and sell marijuana,” the senators’ letter opens. “As our nation is facing an unprecedented drug crisis that is harming our communities, it is vital to learn what measures your departments and agencies are taking to uphold current federal and state laws.”

The senators pointed out that on July 8, 2021, EBCI formed the Cannabis Control Board (CCB), which is responsible for issuing licenses for medical marijuana businesses, agent cards for employees of said businesses, and patient cards for individuals to access medical marijuana. 

They also stated that on July 28, 2022, they registered the Qualla Enterprises LLC with NC Secretary of State to manage their marijuana operations. On Sept. 7, members of EBCI voted in favor of a referendum to legalize the possession and use of marijuana by people 21 and older. The following month, the CCB began issuing licenses, agent cards, and patient cards.

The letter notes that the EBCI and Qualla Enterprises LLC are growing the marijuana on a farm on Cooper’s Creek, which is off the Qualla Boundary (reservation). In order to sell it, both entities must transport the product from the farm to the reservation, which is separated by a state road in Swain County.

Budd and Tillis also say that public reports state that Qualla Enterprises LLC and CCB don’t have a testing lab in place to conduct potency and safety assessments of their products. 

All of this has the senators concerned.

“This matter raises multiple questions on how North Carolina communities will be kept safe,” Budd and Tillis said. “Under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq.)). marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance. The CSA prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensation, and possession of marijuana. Federal anti-money laundering (AML) laws criminalize the handling of proceeds derived from various unlawful activities, including marijuana sales in violation of the CSA.”

“Under North Carolina General Statutes (G.S. 90-95, G.S. 90-113.22A, and G.S. 90-94), the possession of marijuana (including medical marijuana) and marijuana drug paraphernalia is still illegal under state law,” the senators’ letter went on to say. “With unclear guidance, it makes it difficult for state and local officials to uphold the rule of law in our communities. In particular, we have the responsibility to ensure our youth are shielded from untested marijuana products being produced and sold by Qualla Enterprise LLC.”

The senators asked several questions in the letter, including:

  • What is the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ, U.S. Department of Interior COD, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA doing to enforce federal law when it comes to production, cultivation, and sale of marijuana in and around the reservation? Are federally recognized tribes immune from the Controlled Substance Act?
  • What action can DOJ take if an individual(s) is harmed using the marijuana from a tribal reservation? Would Qualla Enterprise LLC as seller be held liable?
  • Does DOJ, DOI, and DEA have concerns that an operation like Qualla Enterprise LIC will attract transnational criminal organizations to the reservation and surrounding towns? What state and federal implications do medical doctors face if they authorize medical forms for individuals to obtain medicinal marijuana cards from a tribe or business?
  • Are federally recognized tribes immune from transporting marijuana across state lines?
  • Public reports state that the Cooper’s Creek Property land into trust process took place around 2018. Was DOI notified of that the Qualla Enterprise LIC would be operating on this land? If not, what penalties are in place for falsifying an application?
  • Are federally recognized tribes able to take land into trust for the purposes of marijuana businesses?
  • Under the National Indian Game Commission (NIGC) does the NIGC allow for gaming profits to be used for tribal marijuana ventures?
  • What penalties do federally recognized tribes who operate casino or gaming operations face if they are found in violation of using gaming funds for marijuana ventures?
  • At what point is the transportation of marijuana considered trafficking? Are federally recognized tribes immune from state and federal enforcement?

The following questions pertained to state officials, including Schurmeier, Cochran, and Welch.

  • If the Qualla Enterprise LLC or EBCI is determined to have transported marijuana on a state road to the reservation, will you enforce the law?
  • As District Attorney of the county, are you working with the county sheriff to enforce North Carolina’s marijuana statutes?

Carolina Journal reached out to Schurmeier, Cochran, and Welch for comment. Schurmeier and Cochran did not respond prior to the publication of this article. A spokesperson for Welch said in an emailed statement to CJ, “DA Welch is in the process of drafting a letter in response. That’s as much as she’s prepared to say publicly at this time.”

In an email to CJ, Curtis Kalin, deputy communications director for Budd, said their office hasn’t heard back from anyone. CJ did not hear back from Tillis’ office on the matter.

This isn’t the first time a North Carolina politician has been vocal about EBCI’s plans for the dispensary.

“Here in our beloved mountains, we are already facing unprecedented crime, drug addiction, and mental illness,” Congressman Chuck Edwards, R-NC11, said in an August opinion piece in CJ. “I can’t stand by and condone even greater access to drugs to poison more folks in WNC, not to mention having even more impaired drivers on our roads.”

Edwards introduced the Stop the Pot Act of 2023, which would defund governments that ignore federal law that bans the use of marijuana for recreational use.