A look back on the libertarian crusade that brought pot to our state.
In South Carolina, the year 2040 is a lot like the year 2012. Yes, we have hoverboards, and we have found a way to live off of Cheeto-flavored dietary supplements, but other than that, it's the same ol' Palmetto State: hot weather, Republican politics, lingering racism. Oh yeah, there is one big difference: Recreational marijuana use is now legal in our state.*
Sure, there were doubters from the get-go. Even people who supported the idea of legalization thought it would never come, or if it did, South Carolina would be the last state in the union to legalize. After all, we may have been the first state to secede, but we were the second-to-last to allow tattoos.
But legalize marijuana we did, in the auspicious year of 2040. Now every time we light a joint of Folly Beach Folly or Wadmalaw Wowie, we remember the good people who fought for our rights. It all started with a petition that the City Paper circulated in November of 2012, shortly after voters in Colorado and Washington made their states the first to legalize recreational marijuana use. South Carolinians visited the newspaper's website and signed it by the tens of thousands, demanding outright legalization.
It was a hard trail to blaze, bringing marijuana to the masses through the mire of misguided morality, but in the end, the pipe dream came true.
Industrial Hemp Blazes the Path
Believe it or not, it was a Republican who first tried to bring cannabis to South Carolina. And his name was — get this — Herbkersman.
Back in 2007, Bill Herbkersman, a Republican state representative from Bluffton, asked his fellow legislators to form a committee and study the economic benefits of allowing farmers to grow cannabis for industrial hemp, which is used in the production of rope and textiles. Even though hemp cannabis contains only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, it is still illegal to grow in the United States. This was not always the case.
In fact, during the Second World War, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to defeat the Axis by planting hemp, which could be used to make rope and fabric needed in the war effort. The Department of Agriculture even produced a 15-minute video titled Hemp for Victory that showed them how to cultivate the crop.
In 2007, Herbkersman thought he could make a strong case that hemp could work as a new cash crop in South Carolina, replacing the old standby tobacco as rising taxes and declining demand made tobacco less profitable. "There's no question about it," Herbkersman said in 2012: Hemp could become "just like the tomato crops on St. Helena." And as the only domestic supplier, South Carolina could see a boom by becoming the first state to legalize hemp cannabis.
But Herbkersman met resistance. Other legislators said they were concerned that police would be unable to tell the difference between the rope variety and the dope variety. They pointed out how easy it would be for a crooked farmer to hide illegal crops in a field of legal ones.
Herbkersman's bill went up in smoke in 2007, but he held out hope of bringing it back if he could get some more support in the Statehouse. That support came in the year 2016, on a wave of libertarian dissent.
Robert Capecchi, a legislative analyst who worked for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in 2012 — just after the historic legalizations in Colorado and Washington — that he would have an easier time convincing classical conservatives than liberals that marijuana should be out-and-out legalized. The billions of dollars spent enforcing possession laws and incarcerating offenders, as part of the expensive and bloody War on Drugs, were a horrifically failed example of "big government at its finest," Capecchi said. South Carolina, whose governors had a history of ruthless budget vetos and whose 116th governor Nikki Haley once said, "States' rights trump everything," was fertile territory for that argument.
And who better to make that argument than the über-charismatic Rep. Charles Ravenel Pinckney Legare, a well-connected hotshot freshman in the state legislature from Charleston who took office in 2016. In the tradition of Tea Party-backed state leaders like U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Tim Scott, Legare brought a fiery libertarian bent to the Statehouse, calling for the immediate privatization of all schools and the glorious return of 1990s-style video poker.
Legare, who grew up in a rural Gullah Geechee community on Johns Island, saw hemp as the key to saving his people's land from development. If they had a real cash crop to grow, he reasoned, they would be able to stave off the offers from real estate magnates who saw the plans for new roads off of the extended I-526 and wanted to cover the once-remote island in exurban sprawl.
In the 2017 legislative session, Legare re-introduced Herbkersman's hemp bill, and this time it stuck. Shortly thereafter, hemp was legalized, and the governor's office threw its team of lawyers behind a Supreme Court case when the federal government inevitably challenged the law. It was a triumph, the governor said, of states' rights.
For Herbkersman, it was always a matter of liberty. "A person who owns land should be able to grow that if he wants to," he said back in 2012. "I mean, how restrictive is our government going to be? Which leads us to the other question, right?"
The Other Question: Medical Marijuana
It was in the year 2020 that state legislators finally started seeing the issue of medical marijuana legalization clearly. By this time, Arkansas had reintroduced and passed its medical marijuana referendum that originally failed in 2012, becoming the first state in the South to allow medical marijuana. North Carolina was next, leaving doctors and legislators wondering how to stanch the flow of patients seeking treatment out of state.
By this time, marijuana activists were getting organized in South Carolina. They took advice from Jaime Tenny, co-owner of COAST Brewery in North Charleston, who won her own sort of anti-prohibition crusade in 2007. Before 2007, South Carolina limited beer alcohol content by weight to five percent. Through a few years of elbow grease and the formation of a grassroots advocacy group called Pop the Cap S.C., she convinced the Legislature to raise the limit to 14 percent, paving the way for high-gravity craft brews.
At first, Tenny told them, legislators didn't want to even touch a bill to liberalize booze laws. "They're sketchy with alcohol, and they say, 'Oh, we don't want to have anything to do with that,'" she said. But then she created informational pamphlets explaining the merits of craft brewing and organized a letter-writing campaign. Finally, Tenny says, legislators were seeing eye to eye with her. "We found that, for the most part, once they really understood and we presented facts, most of them went, 'Oh, OK,'" she says.
The first medical marijuana bill, introduced by Rep. Legare in the 2019 legislative session, called for a public referendum to decide whether doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana through state-approve dispensaries. It got hung up in a House committee that year, but it came back with a vengeance and passed in 2020 after Tokers for Treatment, a new grassroots lobbying group, picked up on the success of the 2012 City Paper "potition" and started a door-to-door petition-signing and education campaign.
The Mescher Bill, as it came to be known, was named in honor of former Berkeley County Republican Rep. Bill Mescher, who proposed the first state bill to legalize medical marijuana in 2007. Mescher, who was also instrumental in legalizing tattoos, spoke of his first wife's agonizing death from lung cancer and how medical marijuana could have eased her pain. He made ripples in national news outlets with his bill, but it went with him to the grave in 2008 after he died of a stroke.
The Mescher Bill passed in 2020, partly on the strength of a subcommittee testimony that went viral on YouTube. Richard Todd, a former Charleston morning talk show host on 1250 WTMA, spoke stirringly of his own wife Mary's struggle with the pain and nausea of breast cancer and its treatment, as he had so often on the air. "Medical marijuana was the only thing that would make her feel normal," he said. "She had all kinds of medicine given to her, and the thing that worked the best was just a couple of puffs off of a joint."
Todd, ever a libertarian critic of the Republican Party, put some legislators to shame and converted dozens in a single speech. "It's funny that the term 'compassionate conservative' is around, and yet they don't want to have compassion to allow you to alleviate your own pain and suffering," Todd said. "And they don't want to be conservative enough to say they can't tell you what you can ingest in your own body."
The Other Other Question: Recreational Marijuana
Back in 2012, Rep. Herbkersman said he supported medical marijuana as well as industrial hemp in South Carolina. He, too, had a family member with cancer — his brother — who found pain relief and even an appetite booster in marijuana. But he wasn't sure where to stand on the issue of recreational marijuana just yet. After the Colorado and Washington referenda passed, he said, "I'm going to stand back and see what happens."
By that, he meant not just that he would see if federal authorities cracked down on users in those states. He meant that he wanted to see what effect legalization had on crime and addiction rates. What he ended up seeing in Colorado and Washington was a success, much like what happened in Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use, switching from a system of punishment to a system of treatment, and 10 years later, drug abuse had been halved.
In 2012, Herbkersman said he wouldn't be surprised if an aging Baby Boomer population approved decriminalization measures, such as the medical marijuana "reeferendum" that eventually passed in 2020. "I think it's gaining more acceptance, because generally the people who would be against something like that were the older generations," Herbkersman said. "But the older generation now are the folks who grew up in the '60s, and man, you know what that was all about."
After the prescription-pot dispensaries opened in South Carolina, it was only a matter of time before fully legal recreational weed made its way to South Carolina's bowls and spliffs. By the time the issue made it to the state legislature in 2040, Oregon and several other states had gone the legalization route. Once again, an increasingly curmudgeonly Richard Todd dropped some knowledge on the legislators who stood in opposition. "People will say, 'If you legalize it, then anybody who wants it will be able to get it.' Well, I don't know anyone right now who wants it and can't get it," Todd said.
What finally put the Palmetto State over the edge for legalization, though, was a money crunch. In the throes of the Great Late '30s Recession, state leaders started looking under every rug for new revenue sources, especially to fund a much-needed beltway off of Interstate 20 around Columbia. Gov. Charles Ravenel Pinckney Legare started leaning on his buddies in the Legislature to bring up the legalization and excise taxation of recreational marijuana.
In the year 2000 alone, according to data from the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, there were 28,320 drug-related arrests in the state. In 2040, untold thousands of dope-smokers suddenly went from being criminals to being tax-paying customers of state-regulated head shops.
When the Marijuana Legalization Act of 2040 passed and the projected tax revenues were more than enough to match a federal grant for the Columbia beltway, the infrastructure project was dubbed — you guessed it — Interstate 420.
So, to all of you who came before us, who signed the City Paper petition and told your state legislators that the War on Drugs was a losing fight: Thank you. This bud's for you.
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