Legal pot in South Carolina? Don’t hold your breath

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, a medical marijuana plant grows at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle. Votes this week by Colorado and Washington to allow adult marijuana possession have prompted what could be a turning point in the nation's conflicted and confusing war on drugs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Colorado just legalized pot. Washington just legalized pot. Fifteen other states have legalized some form of medical marijuana.

Pundits are speculating about a turning point in the country’s expensive, controversial war on drugs.

South Carolina? Well, put down that match. Nobody will be lighting up here legally any time soon, even though a somewhat diverse collection of groups, including the League of Women Voters, is calling for it.

The bedrock conservative politics of the state keep rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, fighting just to hold on to hard-won gains like modest reductions in penalties for nonviolent offenders.

A call to the state office of legalize-marijuana advocate NORML is routed to a blind voice mail where the caller leaves a name and number. An email to a local student group calling for decriminalization failed to deliver.

Still, the recent votes in other states have encouraged advocates here.

“As they say in politics, when a little window opens, that’s your chance to at least have a discussion,” said Julie Hussey, Charleston area chapter president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

The last — and only, at least in recent times — legislative effort to decriminalize marijuana in the state was a medical marijuana bill filed by the late Sen. Bill Mescher in 2007, after his late wife’s grueling struggle with cancer. Mescher died of a stroke not long after, and the bill expired without action.

There’s been no real shift in the wind since.

“To my knowledge, there’s been no incentive, no initiative, no anything at all to do with the legalization of marijuana. I can’t imagine anyone in South Carolina trying to legalize marijuana,” said Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, who holds Mescher’s former seat in the Legislature.

“Senator Mescher did it for the right reasons. Bill really felt seriously about it. But he was a little more liberal about those things. No. It’s not going to happen,” Campbell said.

“It’s the ‘tough on crime’ mind set,” said Victoria Middleton, director of the state chapter of the ACLU. “We need to be smart on crime.”

The closest South Carolina has come to decriminalizing marijuana is sentencing reforms aimed at lessening the penalties for non-violent offenders, she said, and there is interest in drug courts and alternative, community-based sentencing. But despite the fairness issues, the costs and consequences that have “broken whole communities,” she said she doesn’t expect to see legislative reform.

“It has to happen at the grassroots,” like resident-led initiatives that have succeeded in other states, Middleton said.

The League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area studied the drug use issue a few years back and called for, among a number of measures, decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use and legalization of medical marijuana.

That was based on findings that included the pervasiveness of drug use, the enforcement cost and the disruption caused by criminalization to families and communities.

“I’m proud the league supported it when it seemed radical,” Hussey said. “It doesn’t seem so radical anymore.”

But Robert Capecchi, legislative analyst for the national Marijuana Policy Project, concedes the legalization movement isn’t going anywhere in South Carolina right now, even though “when you boil it down, ending the marijuana prohibition is ending a nanny state proposal. It’s a genuine conservative idea.”

Charleston attorney Joe Cadmus, who represents clients in marijuana cases and favors legalization for the tax revenue potential, said the recent other-state votes won’t have the snowfall effect some people think. Federal law still prohibits marijuana use.

“Even if it’s legal in a state, people can still be arrested,” he said. “I think (the recently passed legalizations) are a start. It’s a question of what the federal government will do.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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