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WASHINGTON — Nancy Mace began using marijuana after she was raped in high school. “There was no light in my life,” Mace told Yahoo News of that time. “I dropped out of school, became a waitress at Waffle House.”
She eventually returned to school with newfound determination, becoming the first woman to graduate from the Citadel in 1999. After working in South Carolina politics, she won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in 2018, becoming only the second woman to represent the state in Washington.
Now she is using her newfound national clout to help legalize the drug that helped her through the trauma of sexual assault with legislation that decriminalizes and taxes it, with a 3 percent “sin tax” (also known as an excise tax) similar to those once in place for tobacco and alcohol. In effect, the States Reform Act, as the legislation is known, would treat cannabis like alcohol instead of heroin.
“When you poll on this issue, when you put it on the ballot, there is overwhelming support regardless of your political affiliation,” Mace told Yahoo News in a recent interview. In fact, legalizing cannabis appears to have become the least controversial issue in a society riven by controversies, with a recent Pew poll showing 91 percent of Americans favoring legalization.
Cannabis (the word “marijuana” has fallen out of favor, in part because of its racialized connotations) is already legal for medical use in 37 states; 18 states allow recreational use too. However, the federal government still classifies the drug in the same Schedule I category as LSD and ecstasy, so that essential functions like banking are difficult to obtain for dispensaries even in states where cannabis is legal.
Mace’s proposal is one of a number of cannabis-related proposals now being considered by Congress. A roadblock to much of that legislation has been Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has his own ambitious cannabis reform bill that he favors above more modest proposals that would, for example, make use of the federal banking system easier for cannabis-related businesses.
Schumer even stripped a banking-related provision from last year’s defense bill, infuriating House members who’d introduced and supported the measure. “I don’t really quite know what the hell his problem is,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said of Schumer at the time.
Advocates continue to make their case, seeing Democratic control of Congress as a prime opportunity for actions. But with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting ordinary legislative business and other progressive priorities on hand, it is not obvious that cannabis will get the hearing it deserves. An analyst for Bloomberg described the interest for reform as “lukewarm.”
Mace says the Democrats have committed to a hearing on her bill, which would let states regulate cannabis as they see fit. “It’s going to be the most palatable in a bipartisan way,” she told Yahoo News.
The cultural politics of the issue are fascinating, putting a traditional conservative like Mace in the same boat as libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Yet President Biden’s own newfound progressivism has not extended to a drug whose legalization has been tied to redressing the racial disparities of the Nixon-era war on drugs. Last year, the White House came under fire for dismissing five staffers who admitted to using cannabis in the past.
The issue is far less popular with Republicans (47 percent in favor, according to Pew) than it is with Democrats (72 percent), meaning that Mace’s position is not without risk. The issue is not nearly as settled politically in South Carolina as it is in some other states, with legalization a matter of pointed contention in the upcoming gubernatorial race.
After she introduced the bill, Mace was rebuked by the South Carolina chairman of the Republican Party, who denounced “any effort to legalize, decriminalize the use of controlled substances.”
Mace says she isn’t afraid to go it alone, though some Republicans in the House do support her proposal. “If you operate that way, you’ll never get anything done,” she told Yahoo News.
In her short time in Washington, Mace has gone her own way a number of times, charting a course that is neither slavishly pro-Trump nor committed to the Kinzinger-Cheney model of internal resistance. She has clashed with both Ocasio-Cortez and MAGA loyalist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom she dismissed with an instantaneously classic Southernism: “Bless her f***ing heart.”
While that kind of rhetoric has grabbed headlines, it has not necessarily endeared her to GOP leadership. “I don’t really understand the game she's playing,” one House Republican confessed to Politico last fall.
The moment’s complex crosscurrents could hand Mace an unexpected victory, given that both parties will need something to campaign on in the fall. Or those same dynamics could leave Mace with a failed bill that attracts enmity from Republicans without garnering much favor with moderate Democrats.
Yet the effort did get a major boost last month with an endorsement from Amazon, which has become increasingly involved in Washington affairs (founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, as well as the biggest residence in the district). “Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort,” an account affiliated with the company’s lobbying efforts tweeted.
It’s a single tweet, but one that represents a corporate giant setting up shop in northern Virginia. The message gave Mace's proposal “great momentum going into the start of this year,” she said. “I foresee other companies being encouraged to support the bill moving forward.” Given the cultural imprimatur of giants like Amazon, such corporate avowals could prove more auspicious for her bill than the entreaties of activists have had in other efforts.
So far, though, efforts at drug reform are proceeding largely at the state level, with little resembling national policy in evidence. Maine is moving to potentially decriminalize psilocybin (more commonly known as “magic mushrooms”), which the District of Columbia decriminalized last year. There is even a push to legalize LSD, with evidence mounting that psychedelic drugs — long caricatured as a hippie habit — can successfully treat some severe mental illnesses.
Just about half of all Americans have tried cannabis in some form, and even though concerns remain about heavy use by teenagers, cannabinoids — the psychoactive compounds in the buds of the cannabis plant — appear to also help with a variety of ailments. Mace says she recently spoke to a mother whose 14-year-old daughter is afflicted with cerebral palsy and suffers from a series of unremitting seizures each day. Cannabis helps, even in the “trace amounts” the mother says she has been administering.
“We have the best cannabis of the world,” she says of the United States, envisioning a kind of emergence like that of the moribund American wine industry, which took place after a famous 1976 tasting in Paris saw California vintages beat out their continental counterparts. “Let’s start right here.”