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The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote Thursday on whether to become the only place in North Carolina to legalize recreational marijuana use

A survey of registered voters in the state released in February by Meredith College, a private liberal arts college in Raleigh, found that 73% approve of legalizing medical marijuana. However, a bill to legalize medicinal use stalled in the House and is unlikely to get a hearing until next year.

“What a brilliant business decision by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to say, ‘OK, well we’re gonna move on with this,’” said Kevin Caldwell, southeast legislative manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to legalizing cannabis. “To meet a need that is not being met in the greater state of North Carolina, more power to them.”

Thirty-eight states have legalized medical use of marijuana, and 23 allow recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The delay, Caldwell said, means the state Legislature is passing on its opportunity to regulate the estimated $3 billion illicit market in North Carolina. 

“You already have this huge underground economy in North Carolina based around cannabis, and they continue to just stick their head in the sand and let that market go,” Caldwell said. 

A tribal elder takes a tour of Qualla Enterprises, the tribe’s cannabis company. Madison Hye Long for NBC News

In 2020, the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota became the first tribal nation in the U.S. to legalize recreational use of marijuana in a state that still considers it illegal, according to NORML, a national cannabis advocacy organization. And tribes including the Suquamish Tribe and the Las Vegas Paiutes have been operating their own dispensaries for years. 

Many tribal governments across the country, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, rely on casino revenues to bolster their economies, paying for infrastructure and services like health care and, in some cases, direct payments to tribal citizens. As some states are moving into sports betting, Sneed said tribal nations like his are looking for new ways to diversify their revenue streams. Even though he’d prefer to hold off on approval of recreational use, Sneed said that being the only legal seller of marijuana in North Carolina could be a good investment.

“As I tell my colleagues here in the government and also my constituents, the window of opportunity for windfalls of revenue in the cannabis industry, that window is closing quickly,” Sneed said. 

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