CHARLESTON, S.C. (WBTW) – In addition to obvious financial gains for the state, legalizing marijuana in South Carolina would benefit law enforcement, military veterans and others who struggle with pain management, according to Joe Cunningham, a democratic candidate for governor.
“Our country has been fighting the war against marijuana for decades,” Cunningham said in a news conference Monday afternoon in Charleston. “Now, it’s time for elected officials to admit that what we are doing has not been working.”
Cunningham, who announced his campaign in April, said he’s running to bring South Carolina out of the past and into the future. The state is one of only 14 that bans all marijuana use.
He said his plan to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use for anyone 21 or older would generate tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, money that could be used for schools, teachers, roads and Medicaid. It could also lead to tax cuts, he said.
He compared South Carolina with Oregon, which has a smaller population but still saw $133 million in revenue from marijuana taxes in 2020. “We could do a lot of good and help a lot of people with that money,” he said.
But there’s more to the issue than generating revenue, he said. Through the years, the state’s marijuana laws have hurt more people than they have helped, he said, adding that they are based on “myths, prejudice and fear,” often kept alive by politicians.
One of the biggest benefits of legalizing marijuana would be law enforcement, he said. Personnel would be able to focus less on low-level marijuana crimes and more on keeping violent offenders off the streets.
“Today, our state’s murder rate has never been higher, and therefore our law-enforcement resources have never been more valuable,” he said.
The ACLU of South Carolina said they’re in favor of Cunningham’s plan. “It is pass time for South Carolina to end it’s war on marijuana,” said Frank Knaack, the Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
In addition, Cunningham said the state’s current medical marijuana laws “continue to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.” They are more than four times more likely to be arrested for using marijuana than someone who is white even though they use marijuana at the same rate, he said.
“Lives have been ruined over the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” he said. “And such arrests have turned thousands of South Carolinians into criminals when their acts would be completely legal in so many other states.”
That’s why he said he wants to expunge the criminal records of those who have been convicted of low-level marijuana offenses to give them a “second chance” at putting their lives back together.
Bill Nettles, a former U.S. Attorney in South Carolina, spoke alongside Cunningham at Monday’s news conference. He said money from legalizing marijuana could be used to make lives safer. He said it’s time for South Carolina to follow the lead of several other southern states.
“Alabama and Mississippi, let me say that again, Alabama and Mississippi, are both moving the ball further than we are on this issue,” he said. “Virginia, a southern state, just legalized it. In West Virginia, the Republican governor of West Virginia who is, you know, rightly or wrongly, an adamant Trump supporter, he advocated for medical marijuana in West Virginia. Why? Because he saw what opioids were doing to his state. This wasn’t an abstract issue to him. This was a very real issue. And you know what, they’ve gotten real results in West Virginia.”
Cunningham said his plan to legalize marijuana would also benefit veterans and others who suffer from chronic illnesses. He said he’s talked directly to veterans who have told him that marijuana is the only thing that helps them sleep. Marijuana should also be an option for those who don’t want to risk addiction to opioids, he said.
“It’s truly shameful that we ask these heroes to defend our freedoms abroad, promising them that we’ll take care of them when they return and then deny them that basic remedy that would help alleviate the pain that was incurred through their heroic acts,” he said.
For veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD that leads to depression, insomnia and other ailments, access to marijuana could be the difference between life and death, he said. It has proved to be a safer, more effective form of pain management for those who live in states where cannabis is already legal.
David Howell, a former U.S. Navy corpsman and a registered nurse, said he has suffered from PTSD for 38 years. He urged veterans to build a dialogue with their doctors and be open with what they’re doing to cope with their PTSD.
He said 17 to 20 veterans commit suicide every day because of PTSD, something legal access to marijuana can help prevent because it helps ease many symptoms, specifically insomnia, which he said is a “driving factor” of depressive disorders. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs that can take months to kick in, cannabis provides near-instant relief, he said.
News13 reached out to Governor McMaster’s office for a statement but didn’t receive a response. His stance when we asked his office in January was quote, “he simply cannot support the legislation until such a time that law enforcement officials in South Carolina are comfortable that it can be properly controlled.”
Horry County Representative Case Brittain said he doesn’t think this is a political issue.
“You would hope that if there’s a way that we can provide an ease of comfort to those people especially that need something to provide to, to ease that pain that it wouldn’t be a party issue, but a human issue,” Representative Brittain said.
Representative Brittain says he would like to see first how legalizing medical marijuana would go before making any decision on recreational use.
“So there’s a lot of things I’d like to see play out for 5 years to make sure we’re, if we do take the step toward medical marijuana, to see if it’s something in the future we could make recreational. I don’t think I’m ready to say right now I’m for or against anything right now recreationally,” Representative Brittain said.