FILE - Joe Cunningham

Former South Carolina U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham

(The Center Square) – Marijuana will be a campaign issue in South Carolina’s gubernatorial race next year, and a leading Democratic candidate is calling for full legalization in a state without a medical marijuana program.

“This is something the people want,” former Congressman Joe Cunningham said. “People are behind it, and politicians need to get behind it, too. If our politicians aren’t reflecting the will of the people, then we have to change out the politicians, starting with Gov. McMaster.”

Cunningham, who flipped Congressional District 1 from red to blue in 2018 for the first time in decades only to lose reelection to Republican Nancy Mace in 2020, launched his gubernatorial campaign in April.

State Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, and activist Gary Votour also are vying for the Democratic nod to unseat McMaster.

South Carolina is one of 13 states without a medical marijuana program, but a Benchmark Research poll in 2018 showed 72% of South Carolinians supported legalizing medical cannabis, including 63% of Republicans.

Lawmakers will debate Senate-House companion measures in 2022 that create a medical marijuana program. Such proposals have failed since 2015.

The Compassionate Care Act, Senate Bill 150, passed through the Senate Medical Affairs Committee with a “do pass” nod in March. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said it will advance to a 2022 floor vote.

According to Senate and Marijuana Policy Project analyses, adopting SB 150 would generate $112 million in taxable revenue and create 1,500 to 2,000 jobs in South Carolina.

Cunningham said Monday full legalization would free police to focus on violent criminals and provide treatment alternatives for terminally or chronically ill people.

“Regulating and taxing marijuana would also generate tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, allowing our state to finally provide critical funding to fix our schools, fix our roads, expand Medicaid, give our hard working teachers the pay raise that they deserve, or even substantially cut taxes on South Carolina families,” he said.

Cunningham’s plan expunges criminal records for low-level marijuana crimes to “allow countless South Carolinians to have more productive and successful life.”

Since 2012, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. Doing so in South Carolina will be fiercely resisted, state GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said Monday.

“If you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes, and Democrats like Joe Cunningham keep wanting to play with fire,” McKissick said. “Does Mia McLeod agree with his proposal? Or does she stand with law enforcement on the issue?”

McLeod said she is among SB 150 sponsors, introduced a bill to expunge marijuana-related crimes, supports legalization, stands with law enforcement on the issue – that is, law enforcement most everywhere but South Carolina – and distinguished her actions from Cunningham’s rhetoric.

“It’s important to understand the difference between campaign promises and what we choose to fight for while in office,” McLeod said. “I’ve 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.”

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel opposes medical marijuana, and McMaster campaign spokesperson Mark Knoop said the governor will back medical marijuana only if law enforcement supports it.

Cunningham said opponents are “stuck in the past” and out of touch.

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