Among members of the GOP congressional freshman class for the 117th Congress, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) quickly stood out for bucking the Republican status quo and filing a comprehensive bill to federally legalize marijuana.
It was a move that generated headlines and endeared her to a coalition of allies who were pleased to see a GOP member take a bold stance on reform. But it also made her a target of cannabis-specific attacks from her primary opponent and a prohibitionist PAC, and it earned the congresswoman no favor with her home state’s Republican party, which came out against her States Reform Act (SRA).
Those attacks proved impotent, though, and Mace told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday that her robust with on primary election day was no coincidence. If anything, the opposition messaging gave her a platform to educate more people about the bipartisan appeal of ending prohibition and creating a regulatory infrastructure that supports small businesses and helps right the wrongs of prohibition. If a candidate is going to attack an opponent over cannabis reform in this day and age, she said, they’re “going to lose big.”
But despite the enthusiasm over the congresswoman’s SRA, there’s been little movement since its introduction last year with Democrats still narrowly holding control of both chambers and the White House. Leadership in the House passed its own legalization bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—in April. And Senate leadership is finalizing its own comprehensive reform proposal that is expected to be introduced ahead of the August recess.
With time running short, and other legislative priorities taking precedence, Mace is tempering expectations about the prospect of a committee hearing on her bill this year despite previously saying she had been promised one. That’s in spite of the fact that, as she sees it, SRA is “the only game in town” that could garner enough bipartisan support to be enacted anytime soon.
“We’re willing to play ball. We are willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us on both sides of the aisle to push it forward,” she said. “But this is the only piece of legislation that has a chance of going anywhere this year or, quite frankly, next legislative session.”
What happens next legislative session is a big open question. The growing consensus is that Democrats stand to lose their majority in at least one chamber, and if the House flips, Mace says she has a plan to convince her reluctant GOP colleagues to move her bill. A Republican House majority could give her better leverage to advance SRA, which shares many fundamental provisions with Democratic-led legislation.
Mace spoke with Marijuana Moment about her primary win in the face of cannabis attacks, the path forward for SRA, lessons learned trying to build bipartisan support for reform as a freshman congresswoman and more. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: What does it say to you that you won your primary election despite being attacked over your support for cannabis legalization?
Nancy Mace: Well, it shows that the only place that this is controversial is in Washington, D.C., where they’re still trying to promote prohibition and say this is a gateway drug, when it’s not. The American people know better, and they’re smarter than that. And actually, it gave us a real opportunity to have a real conversation about a plant that has so many benefits for so many people, not only in South Carolina, but across the country.
So I utilized the issue as I was getting attacked in TV ads and digital ads, on social media, everywhere really on the issue. I used it as an opportunity to educate the public because I know how beneficial this is. It’s something I’ve been very passionate about. It’s something I’ve worked on as a state lawmaker before coming to Congress.
But I also polled the hell out of it. This is after I did the States Reform Act, and understanding that the vast majority of conservatives, Republicans, left and right, people on both sides of the aisle, support the issue when it’s done in a responsible way. And that’s what I think what people really just want to see—that responsibility, that common sense, where we have common ground and moving it forward.
So for us, I look at every challenge as an opportunity. And I used it as an opportunity to educate people on what the bill did and did not do. When you explain that to people, they’re like, “Yeah, I get it, that makes sense. And that’s something I totally support.” It goes to show that when you smear your opponent, you lie about them, when you attack them on an issue that’s wildly popular, even with the base, that you’re gonna lose and you’re gonna lose big and really didn’t affect the outcome of the race, despite the attacks. In fact, my opponent’s first ad had an attack that was, you know, calling me high and telling me I need to get a drug test and all those things. And it just didn’t stick. It didn’t work and was not effective.
It just goes to show how out of touch many people who are in office, or trying to get in office, really are on the issue.
MM: You’ve talked about receiving a commitment from committee leadership to hold a hearing on SRA this year. Do you have any updates to that end?
NM: We had been promised a hearing on Oversight, but what we’re seeing is we’re up against the wall on the timeline. This is only June. However, there are less than 28 days now legislatively between now and the end of the year to get anything done. And so we’re really pushing up against a deadline, and with the January 6 hearings that are going on, that is pushing back the prospective dates for us to have a hearing on Oversight. And so we are concerned about when that date will be in timing it. We were expecting to do it in July, but what the January 6 hearings, it’s pushing everything back in it. And so we’re looking at the only other option would be in September.
So what [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)] does in the meantime, it’s really hard to say. There’s some discussion on what kind of bill may or may not come out of the Senate. And part of the discussion we’re hearing this week is that any taxes or tax origination or creation in the Senate is going to be problematic for the bill. So whatever bill he does cannot include any tax provisions. That has to start in the House.
And the only bill in the House right now is the States Reform Act. This is the only game in town, and we’re willing to play. We are willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us on both sides of the aisle to push it forward. But this is the only piece of legislation that has a chance of going anywhere this year, or quite frankly, next legislative session because the way it’s been bungled, quite frankly, up until this juncture. The MORE Act has passed; it has no chance of getting through the Senate. If Schumer did the bill, it can’t touch taxes, and that will not be good enough for him in the Senate. It’s got to start over here in the House.
The only thing standing right now is our legislation. We’ve reached out to folks on both sides of the aisle. We’re still pushing forward and and talking to Republicans and Democrats. We’re still pushing for the hearing date and demanding those things that we’ve been promised before because we want to move this forward. There’s no reason why we need to sit on this and wait when we should be having debate, we should be looking at amendments that both sides of the aisle want to see on the legislation so that we know where we can start, starting in January when we hit the ground running with the next legislative session.
MM: Speaking of January, if Republicans retake the majority in the House, what can you say about the role you plan to play in building buy-in, especially from your GOP colleagues who’ve historically resisted legalization?
NM: We’re going to sit down with leadership and get with them and figure out what the barometer is, both in the Senate and House. We want to sit down with leadership and have a role in pushing forward. If it’s only going to be SAFE Banking, what’s next? Because that is not good enough. What are the next barriers that we can remove for businesses? For the economy? For descheduling? For decriminalizing? What does that chessboard look like? What are the next provisions that we can be working on and advocating for to move this forward—because it is past time to do something on this, and we want to have a leadership role.
MM: You have a record championing cannabis reform in the South Carolina legislature, but I’m curious what lessons you’ve taken away so far in your first term in Congress when it comes to the challenges of building support for cannabis reform on Capitol Hill?
NM: It’s us coming together and working hard, putting aside our differences, and it’s very difficult for Congress to do. It’s putting those differences aside on both sides of the aisle and saying this is a winning issue. This is an issue that the American people deeply care about, the vast majority of people care about, and it’s very difficult. And it’s not just this issue. It’s across the board on everything—whether we’re talking about immigration, whether we’re talking about Ukraine, whether we’re talking about spending supply chain inflation—is putting those differences aside and finding where small parts can make a big difference.
And incrementally, even though, obviously, I would love to see a comprehensive reform package pass, but what can we do incrementally together? If comprehensive isn’t the way to go, well then where do we agree? And let’s find out. What are the next 2, 3, 5, 10 things—10 steps that we can take together and in what order to move the ball forward? And I don’t hold grudges. I have no ill will towards anybody up here. I really, truly want to work together with folks.
And that’s what we tried to do with the SRA is show that this is a path—that this is a viable path—and we’re willing to work with any office who wants to work with us to truly, meaningfully get this across the finish line. This is the way to do it in a non-partisan manner. This checks the box for the left and the right. It is such a good bill. But I don’t care who does it. I’m happy to pass it off to the next person who says, “hey, we’ll work with you on this,” and we’ll figure out a way to slice and dice it and move it forward We’re indifferent to that.
We just want it to happen, and we want to show that there’s a viable path forward. And we’re going to continue to work hard and work together, even with offices that are trying to resist it and are trying to push back, who don’t want to be a part of it. We’re going to continue to make overtures and say that we’re willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us because that is a rare find in Congress. But that is the only way forward.
MM: You’ve been public about your own personal experience using marijuana as a therapeutic treatment option. Do you feel like it would be easier to garner support for reform if more members similarly experienced firsthand the therapeutic benefits of cannabis?
NM: I do think so. I think data and information [shows] what does and does not happen, that our law enforcement—they’re not concerned or worried or tackling non-violent cannabis offenses. They have violent crimes, because violent crime is up across the country. I know in my district in South Carolina, we have shootings every week it seems like. We’ve got real issues facing our nation right now, this just isn’t one of them. And I also often tell the story about my kids who are middle school and high school and have friends who cannot drive, that are getting high coming to school every day. So clearly, what we’ve done so far isn’t working. But what will work, in putting guardrails in place, which my bill does, to protect our kids and keep them safe? Now those are the things that we ought to be talking about.
I’ve been very frank in conversations about what we can do to protect our children. And that, you know, violent crime doesn’t increase when when [cannabis] is legalized in different states, and allowing states to do what they want, at whatever rate that they want to do it and protecting the rights of states to do that. We’re seeing states incrementally approve medical and then adult use over time over the last 20 years. But giving those guardrails and giving a path, a responsible path forward, that allows people to create jobs and to be productive members of society and the economy and help get us out of the challenges we’re facing today.
And so I love the bill. I’m super proud of it. It’s one of the best pieces of legislation I’ve ever worked on it. And I work in a lot of different areas. But it is a place where we can come together and find agreement, both conservatives and progressives alike. We’ve got to do that not just for Washington, but we’ve got to do it for our country. And our country is depending on it, and we’ve got to move this thing forward, regardless of our differences.