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Historic medical marijuana dispensary opens in Cherokee, NC, 1st in the state

In World
April 21, 2024

CHEROKEE – Hundreds of whooping and hollering medical marijuana card-holders filtered into the Great Smoky Cannabis Co. here at 10 a.m. April 20, for the historic opening of the 10,000-square-foot dispensary selling products such as cannabis tinctures, gummies and other marijuana products.

The opening of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ dispensary marks the first time marijuana can legally be purchased in North Carolina. The grand opening was held on 4/20 — also known as the “national cannabis holiday.”

A road sign heading west on U.S. 19 into Cherokee, just before the dispensary, read: “420. Expect delays.”

Myrtle Driver prepares to cut the ribbon during the Eastern Band of Cherokee Great Smoky Cannabis Co. grand opening. April 20, 2024.

Myrtle Driver prepares to cut the ribbon during the Eastern Band of Cherokee Great Smoky Cannabis Co. grand opening. April 20, 2024.

District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch, the top prosecutor for the counties surrounding tribal land, said her office will continue to enforce North Carolina law, which prohibits the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana.

While the Citizen Times was reporting from Cherokee for about five hours on April 20, a reporter did not witness the presence of any law enforcement.

The EBCI land — known as the Qualla Boundary — is a sovereign nation that has its own elections, laws, government and institutions that are self-governed and autonomous. It lies primarily in the Western North Carolina mountain counties of Swain and Jackson, with smaller parts in Cherokee, Graham and Haywood.

The Eastern Band is one of three federally recognized sovereign nations that were once part of the larger Cherokee Tribe prior to the Trail of Tears forced removal from their land in Western North Carolina, according to the EBCI website. The other two, Cherokee Nation and the United Kituwah Band, are in Oklahoma.

The opening of dispensary has not been without setbacks and is only part of the launch of the EBCI’s cannabis industry.

After the EBCI passed a referendum on medical marijuana in 2021, they launched Qualla Enterprises, which eventually produced “the largest cannabis farm in the history of the United States,” said Forrest Parker, general manager for Qualla Enterprises, an EBCI company that manages the dispensary.

During that time, however, a transportation plan had not been created for the property and the Eastern Band had reportedly invested over $30 million and not sold any of their product, as previously reported by the Citizen Times. The opening offers a new opportunity for revenue for the tribe.

More: NC’s 1st marijuana dispensary will open on 4/20 in Cherokee: What to know

‘Historic moment’

Parker set expectations high for the opening, saying it was a “historic moment.”

The event was attended by hundreds, many of whom were waiting outside of the dispensary during the opening ceremony.

“This project will change the trajectory of their lives forever. It will be a conduit to generations of social, economic, and spiritual growth, unlike anything that’s ever been witnessed,” Parker said during the grand opening ceremony.

Forrest Parker speaks during the grand opening ceremony of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

Forrest Parker speaks during the grand opening ceremony of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

Renowned tribal translator and Beloved Woman Myrtle Driver spoke during the opening ceremony, offering a prayer and noting that she had been given the honor of naming and translating the different strains of cannabis into Cherokee.

While she was doing research to name the strains, she said she began to find older medicinal uses that were attributed to the drug.

Attendees nod their head as Myrtle Driver says a prayer during the grand opening ceremony of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

Attendees nod their head as Myrtle Driver says a prayer during the grand opening ceremony of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

“As far as I know, Qualla Enterprises is the only tribal entity that is going to be incorporating the Cherokee language,” Driver said.

Driver also briefly mentioned Bob Marley, whom she said she had met in New York, and sang his song “Three Little Birds” with the crowd.

Afterward, in a transaction that was made half in English and half in Cherokee, Driver was the first to purchase medical marijuana in North Carolina.

A cannabis plant grow room in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

A cannabis plant grow room in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

Could the dispensary go recreational?

Only those with an EBCI medical cannabis patient card or an out-of-state approved medical marijuana card will be eligible to purchase at the dispensary and the drug is still illegal in state and federally.

This did keep away customers from traveling hours in the early morning to attend the April 20 opening.

Several customers, who wished not to be identified, noted Huntington’s disease, movement disorders and arthritis as medical conditions in which the drug may be able to help. Card holders came from as far away as Surry County, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Cherokee.

While the Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary only sells medical marijuana, that could soon change.

Medical marijuana purchasers wait as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary opens.

Medical marijuana purchasers wait as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary opens.

After a September referendum indicated broad support for recreational marijuana, Great Smoky Cannabis Co. is expected to offer recreational marijuana after Tribal Council passes a resolution changing legal language regarding the use of the drug.

The lead up to the opening has been busy for the employees of the dispensary, as Cade Husky, an employee in the edibles department of the dispensary, said he and his coworkers clocked 155-160 hours over two weeks to get the product across the line.

Workers in the edible department at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

Workers in the edible department at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Great Smoky Cannabis Co. dispensary in Cherokee, North Carolina. April 20, 2024.

“I’ve been real stressed the last three weeks, but now that we are here — I’m excited,” Husky said.

The legalization of recreational marijuana might allow the dispensary to hire nearly 350 employees, as previously reported by the Citizen Times. Husky said they plan to offer more product options once the recreational resolution is passed.

More: As Cherokee plan NC’s 1st legal pot sales, lawmakers erect barriers: question casino money

More: Cherokee tribal police face no criminal charges in shooting of unarmed man in his home

Will Hofmann is the Growth and Development Reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Got a tip? Email him at WHofmann@citizentimes.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Historic Cherokee medical marijuana dispensary opens in NC

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