By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Right now, Harrah’s Casino is the only place alcohol can be sold legally on Native American lands in Western North Carolina. But that could change as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians takes steps to set up and enforce its own alcoholic beverage control laws.
The N.C. Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve S 324 – ABC Law/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which would give the tribe’s ABC Commission virtually the same powers and authority as the state ABC Commission, allowing it to “regulate the purchase, possession, sale and delivery of alcoholic beverages at retail on land designated as Indian Country.”
The Christian Action League remains neutral on the bill, partially because the Cherokee are a sovereign nation, but warned lawmakers and tribal leaders during a Senate Judiciary committee meeting on Monday that extreme caution should be taken when expanding the potential for alcohol sales in a population already suffering ill effects from substance abuse.
The Rev. Mark Creech, the League’s executive director, said nearly 12 percent of deaths among Native Americans are alcohol-related — more than three times the percentage in the general population — according to a CDC study. The 2008 report showed the two leading causes of alcohol-related deaths were traffic accidents and alcoholic liver disease. Further, in 2006, American Indians had the highest percentage (48 percent) of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities among all racial/ethnic populations. And another study that looked at crashes on reservations from 1982 to 2001, showed an estimated 65 percent were alcohol related, compared to the national average of 47 percent, Creech said.
“It is not a matter of racial bias or prejudice to say that science has shown problems with alcohol are genetic and therefore considerably problematic among the American Indian population,” he added, challenging tribal and state leaders to ask themselves if they are sure that a move providing for the potential of more alcohol sales is really in the best interest of the Cherokee people.
Bob Blankenship, chairman of the Tribal ABC Commission, said the bill will be “good for North Carolina and for the Cherokee.”
“Federal Law requires the Tribe to regulate alcohol on the Indian reservation in conformance with state law, and we believe this bill does that,” he told the committee. “It recognizes the Tribe’s authority to do that, and it recognizes the policy and use of alcohol.”
The bill prohibits the Tribal ABC Commission from purchasing spirituous liquor from anyone but the state ABC system and mandates that the tribe follow the state’s rules regarding alcohol retail activity. With the exception of gaming establishments like Harrah’s, alcohol permittees would be bound by state rules limiting alcohol advertising
Just like in the rest of the state, taxes would be paid on all alcohol sold. But unlike local ABC boards, the Cherokee commission would have the authority to issue its own permits to retail establishments. It would also handle its own alcohol law enforcement, which tribal leaders said is already under way since sales were approved at Harrah’s Casino some two years ago.
Currently the casino gets its alcohol from local ABC Boards in Sylva and Bryson City, which share the profits. That money would stay in Indian Country if the proposed bill becomes law.
First discussed in April by the Senate Rules and Operations Committee, the bill underwent a number of changes as sponsors worked with the tribe and NC ABC to figure out how to deal with potential conflicts between state laws governing alcohol control and federal laws pertaining to Indian lands. The bill specifies that if there is a conflict between the state’s ABC Commission’s authority or purpose and the tribal commission’s authority, the state commission will prevail. However, it also indicates that any contested cases regarding fines or revoked retail permits would be appealed to the tribal courts and federal laws would prevail over state laws.
Even if it passes the House, S 324 will not wet the entire Cherokee, but will simply set the stage for the tribe to have its own ABC elections, allowing members to decide on malt beverages, unfortified wine, ABC store or mixed beverage sales.
“Though I do not mean this as an endorsement of the bill, we find it difficult to raise a legitimate reason to deny the Cherokee nation the same rights and privileges of alcohol marketing and accessibility possessed by the rest of the state,” the Rev. Creech said.
The bill has been referred to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Subcommittee of the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development.