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Cunningham: I Will Legalize Marijuana In South Carolina

Former Congressman Cunningham said the people of his state support Cannabis legalization

The Post and Courier

Joe Cunningham — the former Democratic congressman now running to unseat South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster — is pushing for medicinal and recreational legalization of Cannabis. Cunningham says this would offer health care options and spin off millions in tax revenue for state coffers, reports WYFF.

“This is going to be a game changer in South Carolina,” the gubernatorial candidate told The Associated Press last week. Monday marked the official rollout of his marijuana plan. “There are so many reasons why we need to do this, and the time is now.”

He would also expunge criminal records for low-level marijuana-related crimes. Cunningham said this will give a second chance to people “whose lives have been ruined over a bag of marijuana.”

Cunningham said there’s support for legalization in South Carolina and that his plan would boost the state’s finances. He said legalization would take advantage of what he sees as an inevitable wave of change across the country.

Legalization Solves Multiple Problems

To Cunningham, legalization solves multiple problems. It frees up police to focus on violent criminals, and provides a health care alternative for those who are terminally or chronically ill. It also generates millions for a state he says is “dead last” in areas where funding has been a struggle. These include education and health care. 

Legalization, though, would be a steep climb in South Carolina. The office of governor holds limited constitutional power, and the GOP holds a super majority in both legislative chambers. A Democrat hasn’t won the Governor’s Mansion in more than two decades. Cunningham would not only have to win over Republicans at the ballot box, but also in the South Carolina Legislature. Despite years of debate — lawmakers have only passed one marijuana-related bill. That lone bill allows physicians to prescribe products with CBD, a hemp component that alone does not produce a “high.”

Cunningham, 39, seemed about to become one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars after 2018. That’s when he became the first in decades to flip a South Carolina congressional seat from red to blue. Two years later, he narrowly lost the 1st Congressional District to Republican Nancy Mace on an election night that amounted to GOP wins across South Carolina. This was due in no small part by Donald Trump’s name atop ballots. Remember: this is a state where, thanks to educational deficits, his popularity has stayed high.

But it’s that 2018 victory to which Cunningham points when asked how he will win the governorship and lawmakers’ buy-in. The candidate said that he’s been the underdog before. He added his stance is backed by public opinion. He cited crowd support from his campaign stops around the state.

‘This Is Something The People Want’

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

Surveys in recent years have also shown increasing support for medical Cannabis in South Carolina. It’s part of a national softening on the issue, even in other conservative states.Llegalization measures cruised to victory last year in states across the political spectrum.

“People are behind it, and politicians need to get behind it, too,” said Cunningham. He said he has used Cannabis in the past and voted for a decriminalization bill a month before departing Congress.

During legislative debates on marijuana, authorities including Mark Keel, the state’s top law enforcement officer, have testified against legalization. They argued that Cannabis remains federally prohibited. Saying dozens of states have already acted on legalization. Cunningham said that his plan would help Keel do his job by freeing up officers to focus on serious criminals.

“His job is to enforce the law,” Cunningham said. “And what we’re going to be doing is changing the law to prioritize where those resources are spent.”

Two Other Democrats In Race

We’re nearly a year away from South Carolina’s gubernatorial primaries. Cunningham is making his case alongside two other Democrats in the race thus far. State Sen. Mia McLeod launched her own bid earlier this year. Activist Gary Votour has also filed paperwork to run.

Last week, Cunningham announced that he’d raised $634,000 in the two months since his launch. That’s a new record for a South Carolina Democratic gubernatorial challenger in their debut fundraising quarter. According to online filings, McLeod brought in $104,000 since her launch last month.

On marijuana, Cunningham acknowledged the complexity of the issue. But he said his proposal would take advantage of an inevitable wave of change across the country.

“It’s money we’re passing up,” Cunningham said. “I’m not going to be the governor who sits on his hands.”