South Carolina was pinned as the second-highest in the nation for marijuana possession arrests in a new study from the American Civil Liberties Union released April 20.

The report, which found large racial disparities in arrests for simple possession, shows the state with the second-highest rate of arrests, with Chester County having the highest rate of any county in the nation. Laurens, Kershaw, Newberry, Darlington, and Colleton counties are also in the top 20 nationally.

With several bills in the state house seeking to decriminalize marijuana possession, South Carolina could be in a position to change statistics like this. Democratic state Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers from Spartanburg, whose marijuana decriminalization bill was introduced in January, notes the personal way some marijuana arrests can affect individuals.

“A lot of times employers won’t hire anybody that has a drug history, even if it’s a simple possession,” she says. “The mechanisms that we have in order for people to pull themselves out of poverty and to have a better station in life are barriers because they may have a [charge of] simple possession of marijuana.”

Henderson-Myers’ bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where two other decriminalization bills have sat since early 2019. All three bills call for a similar tactic: decriminalize the possession of 28 grams of marijuana or less. In addition, the bill allows officers to issue a civil citation instead of an arrest if no violent offense was committed alongside possession.

“My thoughts were basically to ensure that we try to come up with a solution for our jail overcrowding,” Henderson-Myers says. “[It’s] also a way to make sure that a person isn’t unfairly affected because they might have a small amount of marijuana. And then they can’t find a job, they can’t get public housing, they can’t get federal student loans. It was basically a way to make sure the person got a fresh start.”

It is unlikely that the measures will be taken up during the current legislative session, cut short due to the coronavirus. Bills pending at the end of session will need to be refiled next year.

One of the key points of the ACLU report is data showing that, while white and black people use marijuana at similar rates, African Americans are arrested for possession more than three times as often as white individuals. Although racial disparities have decreased in some states, they have risen in most. South Carolina saw a 25 percent increase in racial disparities in marijuana arrests between 2010 and 2018.
[content-1] The recent news of COVID-19 in local jails has led some to discuss prison overcrowding, a common target for reform in the U.S. Roughly 1.4 million people sit in prison and another 700,000 are in jail, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Jail inmates are often awaiting trial on charges but are presumed innocent, while prisons house convicted offenders.

Almost 700,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in 2018 alone, the ACLU study found.

Crowded prisons have enabled community spread of COVID-19 in some jails, causing some jails, including in Greenville County, to release some non-violent offenders or individuals nearing the end of their sentences.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.