In politics, we often tell people that public policy flows downstream from culture—meaning, it usually takes legislatures a while to pass bills that catch up to public opinion on key issues.
This has been true for some time when it comes to the legalization of marijuana. According to the Pew Research Center, “an overwhelming share of US adults (91%) say either that marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use (60%) or that it should be legal for medical use only (31%). Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say marijuana should not be legal for use by adults.”
And yet, all forms of marijuana remain illegal in a shocking number of states including places like South Carolina, which doesn’t even offer an exception for medical uses of cannabis. One state lawmaker, Senator Tom Davis (Republican – Beaufort), has been working to change this for seven years. And this year, he should have had it. The votes were there and many on the ground expected the bill to pass given the overwhelming support from the public.
The reasons why the bill ultimately failed include important lessons about our political system that all Americans need to be aware of. One of the most important lessons is that in our current system, party leadership has way too much power. It is one of the most glaring problems with our two-party system.
Essentially, because of this structure, the leadership of the party that holds the majority can dictate which bills make it out of committees or even receive a vote on the floor. They can do this no matter how much support the legislation has from the public or the representatives. And they largely get to do this behind closed doors. You’ll find few journalists reporting on these backroom decisions, but bills live and die in this country every day based on the whims of a handful of lawmakers.
This was not how our representative democracy was supposed to function.
In February of this year, the South Carolina state senate approved SB150 for medical marijuana legalization on a second reading in a 28-15 vote. It was then approved on a third reading in a voice vote, moving it onto the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee.
It was expected to move on from there to the House floor where Davis estimated he had 70 votes—10 more than he even needed to pass it. But before debate on the bill could even begin, an opponent of the bill asked the House Representative Tommy Pope (who was chairing the committee at the time) to rule the bill out of order. This was a procedural move that was meant to kill the bill given the fact there were only a few days left in the session and no time for the bill’s proponents to get it through any more committees.
Pope was a known enemy of medical marijuana legalization, and given his background that should surprise no one. The guy is a former cop and prosecutor—two of the biggest enemies to criminal justice reform in general.
Pope ruled as he was asked and said that the bill should have originated in the House as there was a revenue-raising component of the bill since it would allow for the medical cannabis to be taxed. However, the state law says that a bill must originate from the House if revenue-generating is the primary component of the bill—not secondary as it was in this case.
Senate leaders were reportedly stunned by these actions and said this would strain the relationship between the two legislative bodies.
For his part, Davis vowed to keep working stating, “Seven years worth of work. Seven years worth of public testimony. Seven years worth of doctors and caregivers and moms and people coming and testifying and talking how this could make a material difference in their lives.” He said while opponents could not beat him in regular vote, they found a procedural way to kill his bill that was ultimately effective.
One really cannot overstate the cruelty and malice behind these actions. Cancer patients, kids with seizures, individuals with chronically painful diseases like multiple sclerosis – these are all people who will continue to be denied basic medical care and pain relief in the state. These are people who could ultimately be put in jail if they attempt to access a plant that would provide them with relief they desperately need.
These actions are disgusting and self-serving, and these representatives should have to look every single person they’ve denied care to in the eyes and give an explanation.
In the long term, we need to work to limit the authority of the two-party system and those within its leadership so Americans can actually get the representative government they were promised.
Until that happens, these people are enemies of the Constitution and our liberties.
Disclaimer: Hannah is a media consultant for Americans for Prosperity, which advocates for medical marijuana.