The Faces Of Marijuana Legalization In The South

The Faces Of Marijuana Legalization In The South

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly vowed that, if elected, he would respect states’ rights on the issue of marijuana legalization. However, President Trump’s choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has not only hinted that he’ll crack down on recreational pot use, but there are also serious questions regarding what actions he might take against medical marijuana, as well.

While Attorney General Sessions has set a July 27 deadline for a Justice Department task force to review the country’s marijuana policies, the task force’s findings are likely to do little to stop the softening of attitudes about marijuana across the nation — especially among those in elected office. In fact, while private individuals and groups have been carrying the torch of legalization for years, legislators in the South are among some of the movement’s biggest faces.

Here are a few of them:

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TENNESSEE

Marijuana legalization for recreational use might be years away in the Volunteer State, but medicinal marijuana could soon be legal in the state if State Rep. Jeremy Faison and State Sen. Steve Dickerson have anything to say about it. They are sponsoring legislation that would decriminalize the growing, manufacturing, dispensing, and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Supporting their efforts are Berlin Boyd, chairman of the Memphis City Council, and Terry Roland, chairman of the Shelby County Commission. Boyd calls the move “phenomenal,” and says “it's actually putting Tennessee in a position to be ahead of many other states that may follow." Roland, who says he didn’t support a local legalization ordinance because “it was hampering the efforts of the people in Nashville to try to get medicinal marijuana passed,” says he personally knows a cancer patient that “probably wouldn’t eat anything” without the help of medicinal marijuana.

KENTUCKY

Stores selling cannabidiol-rich products have been raided in Kentucky, and most of the state’s congressional members have been given poor ratings by NORML for their lack of support for any type of marijuana legislation. However, two Republicans, U.S. Senator Rand Paul and U.S. Representative Thomas Massie, have been outspoken in their support of pro-marijuana legislation, and noted marijuana advocate and State Senator Perry Clark has been aggressively pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana.

While Clark’s Cannabis Freedom Act bill failed to pass in 2016, he has filed two new marijuana legalization bills, SB76 and SB57, which, if approved by lawmakers, could eventually be voted on by the people of Kentucky.

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GEORGIA

In 2015, Conservative Christian lawmaker, State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, presented a bill (later signed by Gov. Nathan Deal) that established the state’s medical cannabis program, which now allows more than 1,000 people with qualifying diagnoses to possess cannabis oil containing less than 5 percent THC. He also drafted drafted a bill (awaiting Gov. Deal’s signature) that would expand previous bill’s list of qualifying conditions. On top of that, Peake, who is the CEO of one of the nation’s largest franchise restaurant businesses, now helps to shepherd cannabis oil to hundreds of sick people in the state who, according to state law, are allowed to possess it, but who have no legal way of getting it.    

Once a month, a box arrives filled with bottles of cannabis. Buying the cannabis directly would be illegal, so after he opens each box, Peake makes a significant donation — totaling roughly $100,000 each year — to a foundation in Colorado that supports medical cannabis research. Selling the oil would be illegal, too, so Peake gives it away, as there is no provision in the law prohibiting the gifting of cannabis oil. Peake says he doesn’t know who brings the oil into the state, and he doesn’t ask. And while he says he’ll never recover the money, he doesn’t care about that, either, as he says the satisfaction of helping people makes it all worthwhile.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Efforts to decriminalize marijuana in the Palmetto State date back to 2015, when Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced legislation that sought to legalize cannabis for medicinal use. The pair had wanted to push for new legislation this year, but recognize that, despite definite progress on the issue, 2018 would be a better year to enact a new law.

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At a recent news conference held by Compassionate SC, an advocacy group promoting medical marijuana legalization in the state, Davis said significant progress had been made during the 2017 session, and that even more will happen next year.

“It’s a process that we’re in the middle of here,” he said. “And change doesn’t happen overnight. People’s preconceived notions of marijuana or cannabis are not changed overnight.”

Rutherford’s words were even more blunt, as he believes it’s past time to change the law.

“The FDA is moving too slow for those parents who have children that are suffering,” he said. “The FDA is moving too slow for those people who are suffering from cancer who are simply trying to have an appetite so that they can eat.”

VIRGINIA

Virginia might be lagging behind other states when it comes to legalization, but things are changing on multiple fronts.

Jeff Fogel, an advocate for decriminalization who is currently running for Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney, has pledged that, if he is elected, he will not prosecute minor possession cases. In 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a law ending automatic driver's license suspension for first-time offenders, and also signed a bill permitting pharmacies to produce low-THC cannabis oil for patients with epilepsy. And in February, Congressman Tom Garrett introduced legislation aimed at federally decriminalizing marijuana.

"Virginia is more than capable of handling its own marijuana policy, as are states such as Colorado or California," Garrett wrote in a statement.

Also, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who once opposed decriminalization, now says it is “absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana.” Norment was instrumental in convincing the Virginia State Crime Commission to launch its current decriminalization study regarding recreational use, medicinal use, and what other states are doing to regulate marijuana.

It's not secret that marijuana legalization landscape is ever-changing. The Sugar Leaf will keep you up to date on notable developments across the South and the rest of the country.