On a recent Wednesday as the sun was setting over the Charleston harbor, Greg Baynes, a 53-year-old carpenter working on a wooden sailboat at the Patriots Point marina, paused to explain what he’s been doing lately in his spare time. He runs a group in South Carolina called Marijuana is Safer Than Alcohol, or MISTA. You might have seen some of the hundreds of bumper stickers he’s been handing out around the Holy City.

“I’m just trying to educate the people of South Carolina about it,” he says. “The demographics that are behind [in supporting medical marijuana] are seniors, Southerners, and Republicans. I feel like that’s why this work is so important, and that’s why I’m here now.”

Baynes is from the Isle of Palms, but he’s been as far west as California, where he worked on a legalization petition drive in 1993. And he spent nearly a decade in Colorado where on Jan. 1 the state became the first government in the world to allow licensed stores to sell marijuana. Baynes doesn’t smoke pot, but he’s used it medicinally — he prefers edibles bought at a dispensary — to ease the pain of a bulged disc in his back. He’s a local voice in a growing chorus of citizens (and some legislators) who think it’s high time South Carolina decriminalized marijuana for medical use.

A renewed look at medical marijuana policy here comes as the public at large, and in the Palmetto State, seems to be moving away from the image of marijuana as a dangerous narcotic. Last fall, when Winthrop University polled South Carolinians on the issue, 40 percent said they were OK with adults smoking pot, a number that surprised Scott Huffmon who conducted the poll. A national Gallup Poll earlier last year found 58 percent of American voters believe marijuana should be legal, which was up 8 percent from two years prior.

“Public opinion is so far ahead of our legislators on this one,” Baynes says.

Meanwhile, as legalization programs continue in Colorado and Washington, when pot smokers hit the bong the conversation inevitably turns to whether or not their state will follow suit. That was the case on a recent afternoon, anyway, when a 28-year-old disabled combat veteran in the Charleston area was ripping bong loads on his couch and puffing out milky white marijuana clouds.

“Within the end of this decade,” he said after one particularly massive hit. “I guarantee it. I will bet you this house.”

Whether that will be the case is something only our state lawmakers or the federal government will decide. But should the Palmetto State choose to legalize ganja like Colorado and Washington, or allow it for medical use like 20 other states, we might have a leg up. As it turns out, S.C. passed a law 34 years ago allowing the director of the state’s health agency to obtain and distribute marijuana to treat certain medical ailments. But no program based on that law, called the South Carolina Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, is currently up and running. That’s because there is a caveat in its language that says the director can only obtain marijuana through means that are consistent with federal law.

“To this point, marijuana is not legal under federal law,” says the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s attorney Cheryl Bullard. She adds, however, that there has been some relaxation of enforcement under the administration of President Barack Obama, which other states have used to loosen up their own laws. What she’s talking about is when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the historic move last September of telling the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Department of Justice would allow those states to set up regulated marijuana programs. Furthermore, the DOJ sent letters to the U.S. attorneys in all 50 states outlining their priorities in enforcing federal marijuana laws. Those included keeping weed out of the hands of minors, interstate trafficking, drugged driving, and others. But the feds did not change the classification of marijuana as an illegal narcotic.

“So the legal issue becomes whether or not the current administration’s position on enforcement would trump the federal law which still says that marijuana cannot be legally obtained,” she says. “In this state the law still is that marijuana is not available by prescription or otherwise because it is a Schedule 1 substance. Now, if the Legislature chooses to change that designation, then I’m sure the [DHEC] director would pursue an analysis through the agency as to whether or not she chooses to implement the program.”

Dullard admits she doesn’t know much about the legislative intent of the South Carolina program back in 1980, and she says the DHEC director at the time has since passed away from cancer. “I’m told it was to set up a program for just limited access for persons with diagnosis like glaucoma and for cancer, chemotherapy and radiology patients who are certified under a particular program,” she says.

Getting the pistons firing on that program is essentially what Todd Rutherford, the S.C. House’s Democratic leader, aims to do this year. The representative from Columbia is championing a legislative measure that would allow DHEC to pursue its medical marijuana program on a small scale. “We’re passed time for decriminalizing marijuana, and I hope the rest of the General Assembly simply catches up with where I am,” he says.

He adds that DHEC has forecast the cost of funding the state program at $450 million. “I don’t know where they’re getting that number from,” Rutherford says. “But either way, I think that we can fix that bill and allow doctors to prescribe marijuana in this state that is grown by farmers in this state that received a certificate to grow it.”

For his part, Rutherford says he’s never smoked marijuana but is familiar with people who have used it during chemotherapy treatments.

Rutherford represents Columbia, one of only two cities in South Carolina that has a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The other one is in Myrtle Beach. While Charleston doesn’t have a chapter, Wayne Borders, who leads the Columbia chapter, says he’s been hearing buzz that some folks around here might be starting one. He says he gets calls from time to time from interested activists with an 843 area code looking to link up.

One Charleston advocate for medical marijuana who never really got involved in NORML or other formal groups is Richard Todd, the former host of 1250 WTMA’s “The Morning Buzz.” He’s a cancer survivor, and his wife passed away from the disease in 2012. During both of their treatments, he says, doctors at two Charleston-area hospitals told him that if marijuana helped with the pain, they had no problem with him using it.

“It was the most obvious, easiest thing for us as far as my wife’s pain and suffering,” he says. “I used to talk about it on the air from the standpoint of finding the hypocrisy of conservatives who want limited government but who want to tell you what to do with your own body … I just don’t ever see it happening in this state. We were the last state to get rid of he Confederate flag, we’re the last state to get rid of mini bottles, we’re the last state to legalize tatooing. We have a long tradition of wanting to use government to tell us how we should live rather than giving us the freedom of deciding on our own.”

While some Republicans at the Statehouse seemed cool to the idea of medical marijuana when asked about it, others are open to at least exploring it. Beaufort GOP Sen. Tom Davis, a consistent champion of limited-government conservatism, tells the story of a constituent’s daughter with epilepsy who had to travel out of state for treatment involving cannabis-related medicine.

Davis says he’s recently been researching the 1980 medical marijuana law here, and is open to hearing expert testimony about it. That said, he feels any legislation to make the DHEC program operable would likely face opposition from certain members of his party, particularly in the Upstate and in the Senate where rules allow one or two members to block movement on any law. 

“I think given the social mores that are predominant in South Carolina there is still a pejorative stigma associated with marijuana in South Carolina, and I think it would be difficult to get something like that passed,” Davis says. “I’m fairly certain your Upstate senators are going to object to that bill with their dying breath.” He adds that there’s an extreme social conservative streak that runs from Greenville, through Spartanburg and to Rock Hill and extends its way into issues like abortion, gay marriage, and likely the issue of marijuana, whether it’s for recreational use or medicinal.

For his part, though, Davis says he’d like to hear testimony from doctors, and wonders why a heavily addictive painkiller like Oxycontin can be obtained with a prescription, but marijuana can’t if it can provide relief for pain and suffering. 

So Rutherford’s effort could be Sisyphean. But even if it gains traction this year, South Carolina might not be the first state in the South to do it. Lawmakers in Alabama and Tennessee are considering legislation. And regardless of what happens here, activists are content just to have more people talking about marijuana in a different way than in decades past.

Back at the docks on the Charleston harbor, in the shadow of the Yorktown, Greg Baynes says he created his website, MISTASC.org to start a conversation.

“People need to talk to their parents,” Baynes says. “They need to talk to their kids about it. It’s not a hard drug.”

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