With Virginia becoming the first adult-use cannabis domino to fall in the South, the race is now on among neighboring states to follow suit and end prohibition. South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham hopes his state is the next.
The former one-term Democratic congressman, who represented South Carolina’s coastal 1st District from 2019-2021 in the U.S. House, narrowly lost his re-election bid to Republican state representative Nancy Mace, 50.6% to 49.4%, in the November election.
During his two years in Washington, D.C., Cunningham joined bipartisan bills the second most often compared to other House Democrats, and was the fifth most politically right compared to House Democrats, according to GovTrack.us.
Cunningham, 39, is now seeking his party’s nomination to challenge South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, 74, in the November 2022 election.
While Cunningham announced his run for governor in April and has since announced his support of cannabis legalization, he formally released his plan to end cannabis prohibition in the state during a press conference July 12 in Charleston. That plan calls for the full legalization of medical and adult-use cannabis for adults 21 years and older, as well as for the expungement of cannabis-relation convictions.
“There are countless reasons to provide our citizens with a safe and legal marijuana option,” Cunningham said. “Legalizing marijuana would free up our law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes and more effectively tackle our state’s record-high murder rate. It would be a game-changer for people in South Carolina with debilitating health conditions. And it would generate tens of millions in tax revenue to finally provide critical funding for our state.”
According to South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division data, murders in the state were up nearly 25%, from 457 in 2019 to 571 in 2020. The 571 murders represent the highest yearly total since the state began tracking the statistic in 1960, CBS-affiliate WLTX reported.
In addition to legalization and expungement, Cunningham said his cannabis plan aims to raise revenue through responsible regulation and create jobs to give South Carolina farmers a boost.
Cunningham also claimed McMaster has failed to be honest about cannabis and its benefits.
“The people are no longer divided on this issue,” Cunningham said. “It’s the politicians that haven’t come around. Politicians like Henry McMaster who have spent their entire career perpetuating the myths about marijuana, scaring people into thinking it’s more dangerous than it is and, worst of all, keeping it out of the hands of the people who need it most. I think it’s time to tell the truth. Be honest. This governor might be stuck in the past, but I’m not.”
In response to the legalization proposal, South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said Cunningham was playing stupid games.
“We’ve seen the problems legalizing marijuana has caused in other states, like Colorado,” McKissick said in a press release. “The rise in crime, the increase in health problems, especially suicidal thoughts and the negative effect on children’s development, all became worse when the state decided to legalize marijuana.”
McKissick did not provide data to support those claims. According to a study by the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by the Charles Koch Foundation, violent crime has “neither soared nor plummeted” in the wake of cannabis legalization. Koch is a known advocate of ending cannabis prohibition.
“If you want to play stupid games, you win stupid prizes,” McKissick said. “And Democrats like Joe Cunningham keep wanting to play with fire.”
McKissick went on and said he and his fellow Republicans stand with state law enforcement that cannabis should not be legalized, and with doctors who believe medicine is something that should be approved and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At least one fellow South Carolina Republican did not agree with McKissick’s stance.
The SCGOP’s stance on medical cannabis is “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist …” state Sen. Tom Davis said in a tweet.
As the incumbent governor, McMaster has previously expressed his opposition toward the legalization of adult-use cannabis, and also has failed to voice his support for medical cannabis legislation, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
McMaster assumed governorship of South Carolina on Jan. 24, 2017, when former Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to serve as the U.S. Ambassador of the United Nations during the Trump administration. McMaster, an early Donald Trump supporter who delivered the nominating speech for Trump during the 2016 Republican National Convention, then won his 2018 election to serve his first four-year term as South Carolina’s governor.
Cunningham won South Carolina’s 1st District that same election, claiming suburban voter support by demonstrating his interest in local issues, especially his opposition to offshore drilling. The first bill he introduced sought to ban offshore drilling and seismic testing off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts—it passed the House but stalled in the Senate—The State reported.
While a Democrat hasn’t won South Carolina’s governorship since Jim Hodges’ occupancy from 1999-2003, Cunningham’s ability to reach across party lines was a driving factor in his 2018 U.S. House victory, when he became the first candidate to flip one of the state’s congressional seats from red to blue in more than a decade. Before that, that last Democrat to win the 1st District was Mendel Jackson Davis in 1978.
Should Cunningham unseat McMaster in 2022, legalizing cannabis would still be a tough task in South Carolina, where Republicans currently hold 65% majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.