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Behind the Bag: Qualla Enterprises

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Leads North Carolina’s Medical Cannabis Rollout

Qualla Enterprises logo
Qualla's NC cultivation

Cannabis’s global roots can be traced back several centuries: from Chinese herbal medicine and Indian bhang to the advent of pipe-smoking in sub-Saharan Africa. The plant has an origin story in just about every country, and most of them center around the desire to help people and establish community. 

In the U.S., cannabis’s historical thread links back to Native American communities, who grew cannabis to treat chronic pain, create topical ointments, and hold plant-centric spiritual and meditation ceremonies. Unfortunately, years of prohibition stripped some of this potential from Indigenous hands, but today’s legal industry is finally making space for the true OGs of American cannabis to exercise their sovereign powers in an increasingly competitive industry.

One of the first examples of this is taking shape in North Carolina, where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) were recently approved to launch the first medical cannabis program of its kind: slated to be the world’s largest, most diverse, and most compassionate one yet.

How the EBCI voted “yes” for Qualla Enterprises LLC

The EBCI first imagined a Qualla Enterprises LLC future in August 2021, when the EBCI Council voted 8 to 4 to legalize medical cannabis on the Qualla boundary. A major step forward both for the community and the entire state of North Carolina, this vote allowed EBCI to harvest their first medical cannabis crop in November 2022, preparing for the official launch of the company in 2023.

This is a huge advancement for the state and the Southern U.S.; North Carolina was one of the later states to even entertain the idea of legalization, and the South has generally upheld the decades-long stigma against cannabis far longer than other regions in the country. But despite the state falling behind on cannabis legislation, the Tribe is visibly pioneering this industry in its region, making history for its people, laws, and economy.

EBCI’s Qualla Enterprises LLC, which is developing rapidly and at a very large scale, will be revolutionary on two fronts: for the advancement of cannabis acceptance in the South, and as a platform for Native American cultivation practices across the nation.

A Qualla hoop house

“Being an Indigenous native people, no one historically has been more connected to natural resources and plant medicine than us. We wrote the book on that – at least on this continent. And that holds true with the Cherokee people,” said Qualla’s General Manager Forrest Parker.

“We live in the second-most diverse, temperate rainforest on the planet: a very unique ecosystem that lends itself to a culture of people who thrive off plants and plant medicine, and we have for the entire existence of our people. That’s our endeavor. We’re proud to be doing this; it’s what we’ve done for a long time.”

The EBCI’s plans for growth: “The biggest of its kind”

Native American cannabis cultivation isn’t exclusive to the EBCI; tribes throughout the nation have grown the plant to utilize it for a variety of reasons – like smoking, turning into ointment, or even making rope or textiles.

These Indigenous cultivation practices have lived on despite years of Reefer Madness-fueled prohibition, and the EBCI have kept their own traditions alive in the heart of the South. Bringing medical cannabis to the tribe’s community is a powerful full-circle moment for everyone involved: a spiritual, bonding, job-creating opportunity.

“We all have the same goals and values; we’re all in line with what we want to achieve. This isn’t just a business. It’s a community project. And if the community backs us, we’ll succeed. That’s how closely connected we are,” said Cultivation Manager James Bradley.

While profitability is a goal for the business, as with any other cannabis operator in the industry, what motivates Qualla’s success is what really sets them apart from other cannabis companies.

Qualla cultivation construction

Cultivator James Soap began his relationship with cannabis as a young man, and eventually began learning about the medical benefits of the plant, which sparked a life-long passion for growing.

“I love being around the plants. I’ve learned everything from the ground up – everything it takes to get the best results. It’s amazing to do this for our people, and to know that our community will directly benefit from it,” Soap said.

Cultivation Manager Dylan Rose has a similar background with the plant, and began learning about its medicinal properties at a young age.

“Culturally, cannabis always ties back to who we are. And working in the field and cultivating it has been a great journey. We have this collective mindset: you go in every day, and you’re doing it for your whole culture,” Rose said.

“We’re pioneering this together as part of something that has held a lot of weird stigmas throughout the years. A lot of us left great careers to come do this; took pay cuts, or chose to deal with small-town political backlash. But no one has quit. We’re all here thinking of the community, and thinking generations ahead in order to supply funding and help our community grow. That’s what this is all for, and we plan to give back every step of the way.”

As for the future, Qualla Enterprises LLC plans to continue expanding: opening up more programs, opting for community engagement, steering into tourism, and getting involved at a higher state level. 

“We want to focus on awareness, education, and the customer journey. We want people to be able to come in, check out our various products, and do it in a way that is experience-driven rather than sales-driven,” Parker said.

“Legal medical cannabis is taking this new space that will become a monumental part of our tribe’s history. We’re talking about a brand new market where there’s no legal cannabis for 350 miles. It’s challenging but exciting; every aspect of this project is going to be the biggest of its kind. We’re moving fast, but our hearts are in it, and it’s so close to home for us. It’s become a passion project for the lives of our people, and it will stay that way at every turn.”

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