In a historic vote, Cherokee voters said yes to expanded alcohol sales on the Qualla boundary following a Sept. 2 referendum.

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With 42.9% of registered voters participating in the referendum questions — well above the 30% threshold required for the results to be valid — all three proposed measures met approval from the majority of voters. The results will allow for beer sales in grocery and convenience stores, beer and wine sales at restaurants and hotels, and establishment of a package store run by the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

While all three measures passed, some had a higher rate of approval than others. Nearly two-thirds — 62.7% —of voters endorsed allowing beer and wine sales at “qualified establishments” such as restaurants and hotels. Measures permitting retail beer sales and an ABC package store, meanwhile, had slightly lower rates of approval with 57.6% and 59.3% of voters, respectively, answering yes to those proposals.

The referendum results come following decades of failed attempts to secure such approval from tribal members. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino was dry for the first 12 years of its existence after a 1992 referendum seeking approval for alcohol sales in the then-hypothetical casino was soundly defeated. A 2009 referendum reversed that decision, but voters gave approval only for alcohol sales on casino grounds, with such sales still prohibited elsewhere on the Boundary.

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Subsequent referendum votes in 2012 and 2018 sought to expand availability, but both efforts failed. However, alcohol did start becoming more available in recent years due to the combination of a 2011 tribal law and a 2015 state law, which together meant that the TABCC could grant permits to establishments located within 1.5 miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp, and for one-time events such as festivals, among other select situations.

That law’s implementation was extremely controversial at the time. To many, it felt like an end-run against the public’s long and sustained opposition to alcohol expansion. During a November 2017 public meeting on a topic, tribal member after tribal member spoke against it, saying that alcohol consumption is a “slow death,” that the substance is often difficult for Native people to “handle,” and that using the state’s Blue Ridge Law as the basis for permitting cheapens tribal sovereignty.