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High Hopes: How Marijuana Business Could Transform the Cherokee Community's Economy

The burgeoning marijuana industry on Qualla Boundary land is poised to bring significant economic benefits to the Cherokee community, though it also presents some challenges. Last September, an overwhelming 70 percent of tribal members voted in favor of a referendum to permit recreational marijuana use, building on a 2021 decision to allow medical marijuana.

This move towards legalization is expected to generate substantial revenue for the tribe. With the establishment of dispensaries, job opportunities are on the rise, from cultivation to retail positions, offering employment to many tribal members. The influx of tourists and neighboring residents seeking legal marijuana could boost local businesses, spurring further economic growth.

Richard French, chair of the tribal health board, emphasized the importance of the high approval rate. “This is what the tribe wants,” he said, highlighting the community's optimism about the potential economic upswing.

However, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. A minority within the community fears that introducing a marijuana business could lead to increased crime and drug use. Concerns also linger about the venture's financial sustainability and the potential for legal crackdowns by state authorities.

Despite these worries, initial signs are promising.

No customers have been arrested leaving the site, indicating a tentative acceptance from local law enforcement. In fact, staff reported that the local sheriff, Curtis Cochran, toured the facility with highway patrolmen before the opening and left with promotional items like T-shirts and child-proof bags.

Yet, Cochran later stated on local TV that he would not hesitate to enforce state laws outside Qualla Boundary, warning that, “When they come off the boundary, they’re in a different world.”

The real-world impact is already visible among new patrons of the dispensary. Donny Watkins, a 60-year-old amputee from Clyde, North Carolina, expressed his relief at being able to purchase regulated medical marijuana close to home. Previously, he had to travel out of state to obtain the tincture that eases his chronic pain from a motorcycle accident.

“I’ve been to psychiatrists and taken pills but only cannabis calms the body,” Watkins said, gesturing at his prosthetic leg. Despite the potential risk of arrest, he remains unfazed. “It’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

The economic potential of the marijuana industry on Cherokee land is vast. Increased revenue from dispensaries could fund essential community services, improve infrastructure, and provide educational opportunities for tribal members. However, the community must navigate the complex legal landscape and address internal concerns to ensure the long-term success and acceptance of this new venture.

Should more communities follow the Cherokee tribe's lead in legalizing marijuana to boost their economy?

  • Yes, the economic benefits are worth it.

  • No, the risks outweigh the benefits.

  • Undecided, more information is needed.


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