Cunningham was joined by guests who joined the call to end marijuana prohibition, including former U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles (far right)

Former U.S. Rep. and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham announced his plan to legalize marijuana at the state level, both medically and recreationally, should he win the governor’s race next year.

“It’s time for elected officials to admit that what we are doing has not been working,” he told a small group of reporters and campaign supporters at a press conference held at the old cigar factory building on East Bay Street downtown. “Although there are career politicians who would rather live in the past.”

Cunningham went on to say marijuana legalization is no longer a matter of looking to the future, but of catching up to the present. Marijuana is fully legal in 18 states, including Virginia. And 37 states, including Alabama and Mississippi, have legalized or voted in favor of medicinal marijuana.

The former congressman was joined by Jason Eargle, a S.C. native whose father used cannabis to ease symptoms of stage 4 cancer; Donald Howell, a veteran and nurse; and Bill Nettles, the former U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

Cunningham leaned heavily on the benefits of medical marijuana use for those with chronic illness, specifically veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in his advocacy for cannabis. But he also said tax revenue from marijuana sales could bolster the state’s ability to fund infrastructure and education.

“We owe this to our men and women who have served our country; we owe it to those who suffer through chronic illnesses who just want relief from their pain,” he said. “We owe it to communities of color who have been unfairly impacted by these archaic laws.”

The plan calls for the complete expungement of criminal records for those who were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in South Carolina. However, marijuana legislation often raises red flags for law enforcement, who have been fighting the war on drugs for decades now.

“But let’s be clear,” said former U.S. attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles, “Their title is law enforcement, not the whole promulgation. What we ought to be doing is asking law enforcement to get in their lane. It is a misnomer that law enforcement is lockstep behind making cannabis illegal.”

Cunningham said he is confident in his ability to work with conservative lawmakers in the statehouse to bring his plan into fruition, citing his two bills passed through a divided Congress and by a Republican president during his term in Washington D.C. And, he said, he has the numbers behind him.

“The people are no longer divided on this issue, it’s the politicians that haven’t come around,” he said.

One of Cunningham’s opponents for the Democratic nomination for governor, Sen. Mia McLeod of Columbia, said she’s argued for making space in the law for marijuana as a sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act.

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