Politics & Government

EXCLUSIVE: SC residents favor legalizing medical pot, poll says

South Carolinians overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana, but for medical use only – not for fun.

According to Winthrop Poll questions asked exclusively for The State newspaper, nearly 4 in 5 S.C. residents – or 78 percent – support legalizing medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, only 39 percent of South Carolinians said they support legalizing pot for recreational use, a move opposed by 54 percent of those surveyed.

The poll results are encouraging, said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who wants the state to legalize medical marijuana.

“People on a very broad basis, regardless of age, regardless of political affiliation, they recognize that cannabis has medicinal benefits,” said Davis, who also successfully pushed a 2014 law that allows S.C. residents with severe epilepsy to use a pot extract called cannabidiol as treatment. The derivative has low levels of THC, the substance in marijuana that gives users a “high.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That legalization effort started in California in 1996.

Since 2012, four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – and D.C. also have legalized the use of pot for recreational purposes.

Last year, bipartisan efforts to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina died in House and Senate committees. That effort was opposed by law enforcement officials, who said they feared that legalizing medical marijuana would lead to more pot being available in the state for nonmedical uses.

Davis said his proposal would have tracked the plant’s use from seed to consumption, and regulated users, doctors, growers and distributors, adding he will push a similar proposal next year.

The bill should pass, especially if lawmakers see the public supports it, Davis added.

“Politicians always lag a little behind where the general population is.”

SC’s push for medical pot

However, the Winthrop Poll shows legalizing medical marijuana in South Carolina could face a hurdle.

Seventy-seven percent of S.C. residents say the federal Food and Drug Administration should regulate medical marijuana if it is legalized, according to the poll.

But the FDA does not regulate medical marijuana programs anywhere in the country. Marijuana is considered an illegal drug with no legitimate medical use under federal law.

Another proponent of legalizing medical marijuana, S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said.

The only way to force the federal government to rethink how it classifies pot is for more states to pass medical marimuana laws, said S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, another advocate of legalizing medical marijuana.

Rutherford said it is time for the federal government and state to recognize the drug could benefit S.C. patients.

“It is mind-boggling that you have drugs like oxycodone that are legal and marijuana is not” given how addictive and dangerous narcotic pain killers are, he said.

‘Not ready’ for full legalization

Support for the legalization of marijuana appears to be on the rise in South Carolina.

An April 2014 Winthrop Poll found 72 percent of S.C. residents supported legalization for medical purposes. Now, that support is 78 percent.

In 2014, 58 percent of South Carolinians opposed legalization of pot for personal use. Today, that number is down to 54 percent.

Younger South Carolinians are more supportive of legalizing pot than older residents, Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said.

“Older residents remain wary of marijuana,” he said. “They are more likely to oppose legalization for medical use and recreational use, and are more likely to feel it is a problem in their community.”

In the Winthrop Poll, 54 percent of S.C. residents said they do not think pot is a problem in the community where they live. However, S.C. residents 65 and older were divided almost evenly.

Most of the opposition to legalizing recreational pot is from residents 45 and older. More than 50 percent of South Carolinians between the ages of 18 and 44 said they support full legalization, the poll found.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the poll shows that South Carolina is “not ready” for full legalization. But the state will come around, as it has on other controversial issues, including gay marriage, Cobb-Hunter said.

She hopes the state can pass a medical marijuana law and, eventually, legalize pot for recreational use, too. That move would generate a lot of money for the state and save money by jailing fewer people, she said.

“We have so many people of color who are in jail ... because of marijuana laws” she said. “If we take action to legalize it, it would stop the incarceration of people of color on petty crimes.”

Winthrop Poll

The poll surveyed 694 South Carolinians from Sept. 18-26. The margin of error is 3.7 percentage points. Poll respondents were asked the following questions on legalizing marijuana:

Q: Do you feel that marijuana should, or should not, be legalized for medical purposes?

Should: 78 percent

Should not: 16 percent

Not sure or refused: 7 percent

Q: Do you feel that marijuana should, or should not, be legalized for recreational purposes?

Should: 39 percent

Should not: 54 percent

Not sure: 7 percent

Q: If marijuana were legalized for medical purposes, do you think it should, or should not, be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like current medications?

Should: 77 percent

Should not: 19 percent

Not sure: 4 percent

Q: Do you feel that marijuana use is, or is not, currently a problem in the area where you live?

Is a problem: 35 percent

Is not a problem: 54 percent

Not sure or refused: 11 percent

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