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North Carolina's first marijuana dispensary opened last month on Cherokee land


Here's a cool story with a lot of layers to it. It takes us to North Carolina, which recently got its first medical marijuana dispensary. It is run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on their tribal land in a state where marijuana is still illegal. Blue Ridge Public Radio's Lilly Knoepp reports on an operation that tests tribal sovereignty.

LILLY KNOEPP, BYLINE: On a gray, rainy Saturday morning, over a hundred people line up in front of a big metal building in far western North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you ready? Let's go.


KNOEPP: They're cheering on the opening of the first medical marijuana dispensary in the state. Brad Baker drove about two hours from Charlotte to the Qualla Boundary, the nation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

BRAD BAKER: I've been waiting for this day for 40-some years.

KNOEPP: The first sale of marijuana was made to tribal member 80-year-old Myrtle Driver Johnson, who has been an outspoken advocate for the dispensary.

MYRTLE DRIVER JOHNSON: If you believe in it, then let it be known. And I believe, you know, in the medical uses of cannabis.

KNOEPP: For now, the dispensary only sells medical marijuana. North Carolina residents over the age of 21 who can prove at least one of 18 health conditions can apply for a card through the tribal Cannabis Control Board. That's what Esquire Kelly did. He drove four hours from Raleigh for the opening. He said it took about five days to get the card approved.

ESQUIRE KELLY: I have a couple of things going on with me, so just going to the doctor, having them fill out a form, sending it in here. Very easy process.

KNOEPP: The dispensary also accepts cards from other states and tribal nations. Eastern Band is able to sell medical marijuana because it is a sovereign nation and one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. The Eastern Band voted for medical marijuana sales in 2021, in part after seeing its casino revenue drop during COVID. Rob Pero is CEO of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association. He says the tribe is setting a new precedent.

ROB PERO: I think is a testament to them being a shining example of what sovereignty looks like in a good way.

KNOEPP: However, not everyone is on board with the opening of the dispensary. Both of North Carolina's U.S. senators sent a letter to federal and state law enforcement, questioning the legality of the sales. The tribe responded, saying it is a sovereign nation. And U.S. Representative Chuck Edwards, who represents the region, introduced legislation called the Stop Pot Act. Edwards spoke about marijuana at a recent Health and Human Services Committee meeting.


CHUCK EDWARDS: I will say that I'll continue to resist any effort to make these types of substances more available to our youth today.

KNOEPP: But state politicians like Republican Kevin Corbin have been OK with the opening. The dispensary is in the state Senator's district. He says the Eastern Band kept them in the loop.

KEVIN CORBIN: They've included the legislators in the conversations about that, letting us know what they were doing. Honestly, they don't really need our permission or our vote to proceed because, again, they're a sovereign nation, and those are decisions they make within the tribe.

KNOEPP: The Eastern Band of Cherokee is expected to move forward with recreational marijuana sales this summer. The tribe already approved the expansion in a referendum last year. For NPR News, I'm Lilly Knoepp in Cherokee, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lilly Knoepp