On Tues., Feb. 5, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council approved a $60,000 feasibility study “on hemp and cannabis opportunities” on the Qualla Boundary, colloquially known as the Cherokee reservation, located in Western North Carolina. Those “opportunities” include medical marijuana.

Hempleton Investment Group was awarded the contract. The study, which will be prepared with the assistance of Asheville-based cannabis attorney Rod Kight, is due June 30, 2019.

“The feasibility study is primarily focused on hemp and the hemp industry,” says Tribal Council Member Jeremy Wilson. “The ultimate end goal is to get into the cannabis industry, which is highly profitable.”

The cannabidiol (CBD) industry alone is expected to reach $22 billion per year by 2022, according to a Brightfield Group study released last year. The legal marijuana industry is expected to exceed $140 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research in a study also released in 2018.

“Hemp is expected to exceed gaming revenue for the tribe,” says Wilson, which he says has reached $700 million in some years, economy depending.

Justin Hamilton, CEO of Hempleton, says it’s possible the tribe could begin planting cannabis, most likely hemp, as soon as 2020 should the Tribal Council respond favorably to the study.

As he explained in a Carolina Cannabis News podcast interview, Hamilton got his start in the cannabis industry with investments in Colorado-based medical marijuana operations.

Cannabis could address several tribal issues

In addition to a potential cannabis venture that could include a Hemp Farmacy store on the Qualla Boundary, the feasibly study will investigate how alcohol and drug issues can be addressed by the tribe, says Tribal Council Member Jeremy Wilson. The study is also investigating how cannabis could mitigate health issues.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, like many First Nations tribes, offers free healthcare to tribal members, however doctors can’t prescribe medical marijuana though they can offer referrals. “We’re looking for options outside opioids,” says Wilson.

“My approach is to build a long-term plan for the tribe should we decide to go into the cannabis industry,” he says, referring to the medical marijuana component of the study. He admitted he’s the main proponent for cannabis on the Tribal Council.

[Video: The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hosted a hemp forum last year. You can watch a recording of the forum here.]

“Hempleton is one of the leading hemp organizations in the state of North Carolina,” Wilson says, “and they own the Hemp Farmacy in Asheville, so we already have a relationship with them through our tribal members who are already visiting their store for CBD products.”

“My vision for this is not just to bring cannabis here,” says Wilson, “we want to know what’s going to benefit us in the long run and what can help us immediately. From an agricultural perspective, can Hempleton help the tribe with farming? Can they help us with chronic illness issues?,” he asked rhetorically, ” … those are the main points that I’m looking at with this feasibility study.”

Hempleton chosen over out-of-state competition

According to Hamilton, the tribe first approached Hempleton through one of the company’s Hemp Farmacy locations in Asheville last year. The Tribal Council also contacted several other companies, including some out of state.

“They turned down three or four companies throughout the nation,” says Hamilton, “Our reputation and the foundation that we’ve built in North Carolina made the difference. We’ve been able to provide resources and to give them a clear picture of what this might look like.”

“The other groups know their stuff, and they’re doing well, but most of them are start ups,” said Wilson, adding that he wants to work with a company that has a successful track record in Western North Carolina.

Tribes and Cannabis

The federal government recognizes tribal nations as “domestic dependent nations” able to govern themselves within their boundaries beyond the purview of state government. Historically, however, federal cannabis prohibition extended to tribal nations.

The 2013 Obama-era Cole Memorandum appeared to relax restrictions and several Native American tribes began looking at cannabis as a way to diversify their investments.

One reason cannabis could be a boon for tribes is due to tax liability, according to Rolling Stone magazine:

Pot entrepreneurs realized that because tribes generally don’t need to pay income taxes, partnering with tribal governments might allow them to get out of paying the whopping federal tax bill necessary for anyone selling a Schedule I drug.

When former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions resciended the Cole Memo that threw tribal cannabis businesses into a gray area of regulatory uncertianty. Then, states like California and South Dakota shuttered cannabis businesses on tribal lands in those states due to laws that allow local municipalities to dole out grow licenses.

With the passage of the 2018 farm bill — which legalized hemp at the federal level — there should be no problem growing hemp on tribal lands. However, it remains to be seen if medical marijuana grows will be allowed or of the N.C. General Assembly will pass a so-called “local option” law. As of this writing, no cannabis-related bills have been filed in the NCGA in 2019.

[Keep up with Carolina cannabis legislation with our bill tracker.]

For those wishing to learn more about tribal sovernity and cannabis, and the challenges tribes face, this video will help you around the learning curve:

BY Rhiannon Fionn

BY Rhiannon Fionn

Editor & Publisher

Rhiannon Fionn is an award-winning journalist based in Charlotte, N.C.

Full disclosure: Hempleton is an annual sponsor of Carolina Cannabis News and we republish Rod Kight’s articles on occassion with permission and in exchange for advertising on our website.