A Chat With Rep. Nancy Mace: The South Carolina Republican Behind The Largest Ever Cannabis Legalization Bill In The US

“Did you have time to shower?” asks Nancy Mace, the conservative, military school-educated, Republican House Representative for South Carolina, who is behind the most comprehensive cannabis legalization in bill the U.S. - the States Reform Act. Mace’s bill has supporters that run the gamut from Amazon AMZN to Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and a whole lot in between.

She knows I rushed to meet her after a sleepless 18-hour flight from Argentina to Austin and had barely 30 minutes to swing by my hotel, take a quick shower and throw on a button-up shirt.

After my affirmative response regarding the shower, she jokes: “You can sit next to me then.”

"Cannabis Got Me Through Tough Times"

Wasting no time, Mace, who is surprisingly cool and relaxed, jumps right into the topic at hand, beginning with her personal story. Warning: it’s pretty tough.

“I dropped out of school right at my 17th birthday. I had been raped by a classmate of mine,” she discloses but does not miss a beat.

“When I went through this experience, one of the toughest things I’ve ever been through in my life, my doctor prescribed me antidepressants because it was a traumatic event – physically, emotionally, mentally, a horrific event in my life.”

Mace recalls that the prescription medications exacerbated her depression. “I had to get off of them or I was going to kill myself.”

This is when she started experimenting with cannabis. For a short period of time, she found solace in the plant; it helped her keep her anxiety at bay and sleep better at night. “It really got me through some tough times.”

Your Experiences Mold Your Views

Nearly three decades have passed since that life-changing experience. Now that she’s had time to process it and build on it, Mace recognizes the impact the episode has had on her viewpoints and opinions.

“Without that experience, I wouldn't be here today,” she says, reminiscing about her days as a waitress at the Waffle House after dropping out of high school, her return to school and her experience of becoming the first woman to graduate from The Citadel in 1999.

“Cannabis was what helped get me through these tough experiences,” she continues. "And so, when I talk to veterans, I talk to people that have PTSD or other health issues, I understand it because I've experienced it myself, personally. I get it and I can connect with the people that are struggling, and understand why there’s such strong support for cannabis reform in the United States.”

Across Party Lines

It’s amazing to ponder that Mace, a South Carolina Republican with military affiliations, is the woman behind such an important cannabis legalization bill. Still lingering in the shared US consciousness, weed is a thing for hippies and left-wing liberals, certainly not celebrated, or even tolerated, within traditional Armed Forces circles. Yet, Mace defies these notions. 

“When you talk to our soldiers who come home from war, you see the rate of suicide in our country [is out of control], the rate of addiction to hardcore drugs like opioids… Those have had a tremendously detrimental effect on our military, our soldiers and our veterans,” the Representative stresses.

So, in crafting the States Reform Act, Mace added protection clauses for veterans as well as doctors working in Veterans Affairs (VA) who wish to use or prescribe cannabis as a medication. This means these people would no longer face the risk of being discriminated by their health choices.

“Veterans’ issues are really near and dear to my heart, so I wanted to make sure that, when I was crafting this bill, I included those protections… When they come home from war, they have a lot to reconcile emotionally and physically, and cannabis can be a healer, it can be a lifesaver, for many of those men and women in uniform.”

In fact, Mace points out, cannabis legalization is one of America’s best tools to fight the raging opioid epidemic plaguing this great country. “When you have one single dispensary in your state, the rate of addiction to opioids, the rate of dying from opioid addiction, is reduced by almost 20% by just having one dispensary. So, imagine how many lives you could save if you included these reforms in your state. It's crazy to find out about the benefits that we can have when you do sound, safe and responsible cannabis reform,” she asserts.

Everybody’s Getting Behind This Bill

It’s not just the military that is resisting cannabis legalization, Big Pharma stands to suffer big losses from legalization if they don’t become a part of the industry. The same can be said about alcohol and tobacco.

So, how does Mace deal with these big industry lobbyists? Is their pressure obvious?

“Some are for it, and some are against the law. Lobby can be very powerful… But what I do see is there's a cannabis lobby that's growing, there are folks who are heavily invested and are going to throw money into this thing, try to do what they can to advocate, to educate members of Congress to get it done," she said. "And, in some cases, whether it's the alcohol lobby or the pharma lobby, some of those folks are going to want to get in on the game, when they see the tides changing.”

Actually, several of these large, mainstream players have already gotten behind Mace’s legalization bill. As mentioned above, both Amazon and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity have endorsed the initiative.

Progressive cannabis advocacy groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have also joined Mace’s camp.

“We have big companies like Amazon. They don't want to sell it, but it does affect about 10% of the U.S. work workforce, which is about 100,000 people that they can't hire for a new job, even when they’re duly qualified. And so, you're seeing veterans groups get behind the bill, law enforcement groups get behind the bill… Everybody is getting behind the bill, except for the people who are just ignorant on the issue.”

What’s To Be Done?

“In order to do cannabis reform responsibly in this country, you have to have Republicans on board. This is where the States Reform Act comes in to say, ‘hey, this is the framework to getting it done, doing it in a bipartisan manner’…. We're going to be having an equal number of Republicans and Democrats getting on board this year, so it's exciting to be able to lead on that effort. I've stolen the effort from Democrats and now you're seeing all this pressure. They're feeling the pressure because they campaigned on it in 2020 and they didn't do a damn thing for it.”

If this issue was stolen from the Democrats, I ask Mace, how do you unite the political spectrum to get behind this bill? 

"Well, we're doing it right now. We have Democrats that want to line up and co-sponsor it. But they want to pass the MORE Act first, being respectful of the timeline and, in politics in the U.S., it's like watching sausage get made," she replied. "There are negotiations and amendments that need to happen... But we have a line of Democrats that want to get on board, at the same time as some Republicans want to wait until they get through their primaries to get on the bill. So, we're patiently waiting for some of these things to pass by."

Unity Around Cannabis Legalization

"MORE Act, the Safe Banking.... they're going to die in the Senate. And the only man left standing, the only bill left at the table, will be the States Reform Act, and it will be equally Republican and Democrat. I want it to be bipartisan, I want to build consensus," Mace said.

"As a Republican, as a conservative, as a freshman member in the minority in Congress, I passed four bills in my first 14 months in office. So, it can be done if you have the right people with the right mindset, the right message at the table."

In that cannabis has proven to be a bipartisan, almost non-partisan issue, what do you say to those who are angry that you stole it from the Democrats?

"If I’m the disruptor, that's fine. But it hasn't been done in a pragmatic, commonsense sort of way -- or the federal government is going to f*ck it up and make the environment worse than it is.

"The war on drugs has been a detriment, especially for Black and Brown communities that are disproportionately affected by arrests for cannabis. So, if you want to make sure it's done right and in a responsible way, Republicans need to be a part of that conversation.

Political Extremes Grip US Politics

"In today's political environment, (I don't know how it is in Argentina or Buenos Aires, but here), the fringes are so far right, so far left... People will get angry if you're trying to build consensus, sometimes. Why are you working together? Why are you praising each other?" Mace said.

"I refuse to be a part of that. I want to be part of a solution, not part of the problem, because our country and the world need strong, bold, center leadership on many of these issues that will bring people together."

Conservative Roots And Voting Record

"You look at my voting record: it is pretty damn conservative. But then I reach across the aisle and, where I agree with the left, I work with the left, because that's a responsibility that I have as an elected lawmaker. It's just hard to sometimes find those people who are willing to work with you and put up with the bullsh*t that they're going to get from others within their party or their base. But that's what we have to go, if we're going to do better for our country and for the world."

Is The States Reform Act A Safer Bet Than MORE And SAFE?

If the MORE Act is up for discussion in the Senate and the SAFE Banking Act is likely to ruffle fewer feathers, as it only addresses cannabis banking, not legalization, why would the States Act pass? How is it the stronger bill?

For one, Mace replied, it’s bipartisan. And it allows states to be in the driver's seat, to have control over their cannabis reform, to legalize it at whenever shape or form that they want or have already.

“47 of 50 states in the United States have CBD or more. So, it's time for the federal government to get out of the way, to provide a framework to legalize it… These companies that are worth billions of dollars in the industry right now can't even bank. Less than 10% of them had access to a financial institution or bank, they can't get loans. It's a dangerous business when you're dealing with so much cash, and in some cases, we're incentivizing illicit markets." 

Mace pointed out that her bill would solve that problem. "You don't actually need SAFE Banking with my bill because my bill makes the business legal; you get access to all the loans and financing and banking and financial institutions, like any legal, operating business.

The other difference with MORE and Senator Schumer's bill, is the low taxes, very, very low taxes, at 3%. "You want taxes to remain low so you don't encourage an illicit market or an illegal market out there."

Widespread Involvement To Get The Bill Drafted

“We’ve met with lobbyists, attorneys, and industry leaders and CEOs, small and large, to get input. The bill took about nine months to come together. We dotted our I's, crossed our T's and had a comprehensive, fully-thought-out bill that would withstand any court case, any scrutiny, that would be a truly bipartisan bill that has the ability to get across the finish line this year or another,” Mace concluded.

Photo: Office of Congresswoman Nancy Mace, edited by Javier Hasse.

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