By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — For nearly two years, gamblers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino have been able to order drinks on tribal lands where, for decades, alcohol sales had been prohibited. Now the 100-square-mile sovereign nation wants permission from state lawmakers to set up its own Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, issue and monitor its own permits and purchase liquor directly from the state’s ABC warehouse.
The Senate Rules and Operations Committee on Wednesday sent Senate Bill 324 ABC Law/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on to the body’s Judiciary I Committee with a favorable recommendation, but not before raising a number of questions they hope will be answered before the bill would advance to the Senate floor.
Currently, Harrah’s Casino is the only place alcohol can be sold legally on the reservation, according to Bob Blankenship, chairman of the Eastern Band of Cherokees ABC Commission. He said the Cherokees have established their own Alcohol Law Enforcement division which includes two officers who also serve five counties in Western North Carolina. But the casino gets its alcohol from the local ABC Boards in Sylva and Bryson City, which share the profits. The Cherokees want to change that by having their own ABC Commission, which would be on an equal footing with N.C. ABC and would adopt the state’s alcohol beverage laws, Chapter 18B of the General Statutes.
The bill would give the tribal commission six months to adopt ordinances in line with state law or risk having their alcohol supply cut off. It includes a conflict of laws clause that gives federal law pre-eminence unless a federal law proves unconstitutional.
Still, lawmakers brought up legal scenarios that will require more scrutiny by the Judiciary Committee.
“If the Cherokees are regulating the rules … and are going to be managing the laws of the reservation and one of the distribution points breaks the law … the state wouldn’t have a lever to say ‘Hey, we’re going to stop delivering alcohol to you; we think you are doing something incorrectly,'” said Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Bladen). “There could be a conflict.”
ABC Commission Chairman Jonathon Williams told lawmakers that the bill raises significant legal issues including the question of who would settle such conflicts.
“I presume that if there is a conflict in the understanding of the laws, that it would go through federal court instead of through the normal chain of reporting, and yet the bill is drafted such that the tribe would be adopting Chapter 18-B in its entirety which would say that a question of a permit would go through the Office of Administrative Hearings within the Executive Branch of the state,” Williams explained. He said legislators also need to determine if it is their intent to authorize a totally different approach to advertising and sales practices than that of North Carolina ABC, which could be the result if the Cherokees are given leeway.
“In North Carolina law, all the restrictions on advertising and trade practices are found in our Administrative Code, and it is our understanding that the Easter Band, if this law were enacted as drafted, that the Administrative Code would not bind the tribe,” he said. “So for instance, questions of happy hours, unlimited advertising of alcohol products — those things which are a fundamental feature of North Carolina state alcohol laws — would not apply on the reservation.”
Williams emphasized that ABC system philosophies can vary greatly, comparing North Carolina’s policy of not pursuing alcohol for profit to that of New Hampshire, which has just 10 percent of our population, but 150 percent of our sales. He said the Granite State had positioned itself as the low cost alcohol provider for the Northeast.
Attitudes toward alcohol are apparently changing in Cherokee country. Tribal members voted against alcohol sales in 1992, but changed their minds in 2009, despite intense opposition from 20-plus Baptist churches in the area.
Prior to June of that year, Harrah’s Cherokee was the only casino in the Harrah’s chain not to sell alcohol. And those pushing for the mixed drinks convinced voters that the sales would improve casino profits and therefore increase their semi-annual per capita checks.
If Senate Bill 324 passes, it would be up to the tribal government, not state law enforcement, to address sales to underage drinkers or other permit violations.