The late reggae great Peter Tosh wrote in his debut 1976 album Legalize it about how doctors, nurses, judges, and even lawyers smoked marijuana. Now 44 years later, marijuana is legal for adults over 21 for recreational and medical use in 11 U.S. states and legal for medical use in 22 other states. But in South Carolina and 16 states, marijuana remains illegal. It’s time to get beyond that and decriminalize weed.
A new study by the American Civil Liberties Union pegs the Palmetto State as having the nation’s second highest rate of marijuana arrests. Chester County, located between Columbia and Charlotte, has the highest marijuana arrest rate in the country, according to the report. Also in the top 20 counties nationally are Laurens, Kershaw, Newberry, Darlington, and Colleton counties.
The new report highlights extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Black people in South Carolina are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession. In Charleston County, black people are 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for pot. Even more frightening is how much the criminalization of marijunana costs. South Carolina spent almost $50 million a year in 2010 on enforcing marijuana laws, according to another study. Possession of marijuna, in fact, makes up about half of all drug arrests.
What’s most frustrating about the whole mess is how the medical use of marijuana products is calming and helpful to people with epilepsy, cancer, and other debilitating conditions. It makes them feel better — not in the wasted, college way, but by reducing throbbing and pain that make normal life a challenge. Help could be on the way through the “South Carolina Compassionate Care Act.” But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that crippled the legislative session, the proposal that looked to be on track to pass in 2020 now is stuck in the General Assembly.
There are all sorts of arguments to decriminalize marijuana. Other legalized vices, such as cigarette smoking, addictive drugs and alcohol, kill hundreds of thousands of Americans annually, while there’s only a remote chance of dying from marijuana use. Law enforcement authorities have better things to do — fighting violent crime and seriously addictive drugs like opioids — instead of busting people for pot. Criminalization of marijuana also is expensive, filling jails and prisons and diverting attention from violent crimes. People arrested for simple possession also face hurdles when seeking to take advantage of social safety net programs, now being relied on more than ever because of the pandemic. Finally, a regulated marijuana industry in South Carolina could reap millions in tax dollars to pay for the very safety net programs that are running out of money.
These are all good arguments. But the reason to move forward now is because it’s the right and compassionate thing to do for too many South Carolinians. And to anyone doesn’t want to use it, just say no.