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GOP South Carolina Lawmaker Defends Marijuana Stance Of Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate From Republican Attack

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A Republican South Carolina senator on Monday refuted his party’s position on marijuana, defending a Democratic gubernatorial candidate from GOP attacks over his support for reform.

After former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) came out with a plan to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational purposes as part of his campaign for governor, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick voiced opposition and said the Democratic candidate wants to “play with fire” by embracing the policy change.

But state Rep. Tom Davis (R) said his own party’s stance, particularly as it concerns medical cannabis, is “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist.”

This isn’t the first time that Davis has clashed with his party on marijuana. Case in point: he sponsored legislation this session to legalize medical cannabis—a bill cleared the Senate Medical Affairs Committee in March but has since been placed on hold. Davis went so far as to threaten to use his power to block other bills from advancing if his reform proposal was stopped. Leadership has since promised him that the measure will be the first bill taken up at the beginning of 2022.

Now the state has a Democratic gubernatorial candidate running on an even broader legalization platform, and Davis is breaking party lines to help ward off GOP attacks on the issue—though he’s not exactly endorsing Cunningham’s campaign to unseat incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster (R).

McKissick, the state Republican Party chair, argued in a statement that crime and health problems are exacerbated in states that have legalized cannabis. And he said that law enforcement and health professionals should have the final say over whether the plant should be permitted for medical use.

Cunningham, for his part, said at a press conference on Monday that “it’s time for elected officials to admit that what we are doing has not been working.”

“Although there are career politicians who would rather live in the past, I prefer that we, as South Carolinians, look to the future,” he said. “That is why I’m running for governor—to bring South Carolina out of the past and into the future. Our marijuana laws are stuck in the past. They aren’t practical, and they hurt more people than they help.”

The candidate said he “will be a governor who can admit when a policy fails, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the prohibition of marijuana has done exactly that.”

“Our marijuana laws continue to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Cunningham said. “A person of color is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana though someone who’s white, even though they use marijuana at the same rate.”

The Democrat’s plan includes a plank to expunge prior cannabis records.

“This is going to be a game changer in South Carolina,” he told The Associated Press. “There are so many reasons why we need to do this, and the time is now.”

“This is something the people want,” he said. “If our politicians aren’t reflecting the will of the people, then we have to change out the politicians, starting with Governor McMaster.”

Mia McLeod, who is running against Cunningham for the Democratic party nomination, agreed that “public perception about marijuana has changed and so must the laws that govern its use.”

But she took a hit at her opponent, saying that it’s “important to understand the difference between campaign promises and what we choose to fight for while in office.” She added that as a state lawmaker she has “actually sponsored legislation to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, unlike my Democratic opponent who had the chance to do so while in Congress…but did not.”

Cunningham did proactively cosponsor measures to remove barriers to marijuana research and allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to issue recommendations for medical cannabis, however.

He also voted in support of marijuana law reform on several occasions on the House floor, including for passage of standalone bills to federally legalize cannabis and allow businesses in the industry to access banking services. He also backed two separate amendments to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state marijuana laws.

Cunningham did, however, oppose an amendment aimed at removing barriers to research on psychedelic drugs.

In any case, the former congressman is getting a helping hand from a somewhat unlikely source.

Davis described the South Carolina Republican Party’s response to Cunningham’s cannabis proposals as a “fail” and said the institution “embarrassingly cribs [singer Taylor Swift’s] lyrics in a desperate effort to sound cool/clever.”

In April, the senator said that federal prohibition was imposed under the Nixon administration in order to “punish” the president’s political enemies. That said, he stressed that he’s only interested in ending prohibition for medical cannabis and that his measure is not a “slippery slope” to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

Davis’s legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to possess and purchase up to two ounces of cannabis every two weeks.

During the committee hearing in March, Davis repeatedly made the case that his bill “is the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country.”

South Carolina is one of a select few states without an effective medical cannabis program, though it does have a limited CBD law on the books.

A poll released in February found that South Carolina voters support legalizing medical marijuana by a ratio of five to one. But the state does not have a citizen-led initiative process that has empowered voters in other states to get the policy change enacted.

Support for medical marijuana among South Carolina residents has been notably stable, as a 2018 Benchmark Research poll similarly found 72 percent support for the reform, including nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Republicans.

Also that year, 82 percent of voters in the state’s Democratic primary election voted in favor of medical cannabis legalization in a nonbinding ballot advisory vote. Lawmakers prefiled four marijuana measures for the 2019 session, but they did not advance.

Davis said earlier this year that if the legislature doesn’t advance the reform, he’d propose a bill to put the question of medical marijuana legalization to voters through a referendum.

A coalition of advocates for health care and criminal justice reform, as well as veterans groups, have recently stepped up their push to get medical cannabis legalized in South Carolina.

Schumer To Unveil Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill On Wednesday

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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