Legislation that would bring alcohol regulation in Cherokee completely under tribal control is now working its way through the General Assembly.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians established its own Alcoholic Beverage Commission in 2009 following a resolution to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and now the tribe is lobbying for recognition by the state.
The Tribal ABC Board controls the permits it gives to Harrah’s as well as the sale and distribution of alcohol at the casino. Now, Harrah’s must get a permit from the state, in addition to the tribal permit. With these bills, the tribe is trying to change that.
“Right now, they don’t recognize any of the ordinances other than their own. They only recognize towns, counties and townships,” said Bob Blankenship, chairman of the Tribal ABC Board. “We want them to acknowledge our authority, and we want to eliminate dual permits.”
And the issue is not just permitting, but enforcement. The Eastern Band has its own task force for alcohol enforcement, with two full-time officers on duty.
Because Cherokee is a sovereign nation, the state can’t enforce its permits there; they don’t have the jurisdiction. So the tribe is already doing it for them.
Now, they’re asking for full control of it, legally, instead of just operating on an ad hoc basis.
For Sen. Jim Davis (R-Franklin), who introduced the bill, it’s a local issue.
“I signed onto it because I believe in local control,” said Davis.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks said that he’s on board with the bill for the same reason.
Currently, there is nothing in the North Carolina alcohol statutes which specifically addresses tribal sovereignty and this bill will correct that deficiency.”
The measure has the backing of the Tribal Council, as well. In reality, the law will do little more than formalize the procedures already in place, and get rid of redundant permits.
What it won’t do is expand alcohol sales on the reservation.
Currently, Tribal ABC can legally issue sale permits to one place: Harrah’s. They can give one-time permission to serve alcohol at special events and issue brown-bag permits that allow patrons to bring their own — the Holiday Inn in Cherokee has had one since 1984 — but they still can’t let anyone on the reservation sell alcohol outside Harrah’s.
This means that, not only can other restaurants and shops in Cherokee not sell to customers looking to buy, Harrah’s itself has to take its money elsewhere, too. So ABC stores in neighboring counties are raking in revenue keeping the casino well stocked.
To change that, said Blankenship, another referendum would be needed to broaden the scope of his board’s authority.
The idea of sales elsewhere on the Qualla Boundary, however, has been bandied about before and it has recently resurfaced. The Cherokee Chamber of Commerce sent out an informal survey, asking members to weigh in on the issue, and Chamber Executive Matt Pegg said that many seemed to be in favor of letting other local businesses get in on the alcohol game.
For now, though, said Blankenship, his board will be happy just to be recognized by the state for what they already do, without raising the question of whether they should do more.