Medical marijuana cleared a key committee on Thursday and headed to the floor of the S.C. Senate.
But the 8-6 vote by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee came as enforcement leaders are hardening their opposition, saying it is another step toward legalized recreational marijuana in the Palmetto State.
"That's what we've seen in every state," State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told The State after the committee vote. "There's not a state that hasn't (gone) in steps. And we've seen our state go through the same steps. From CDB oil to hemp to medical marijuana to recreational marijuana. And that's what we've seen in every state . So I have no reason to think its going to be any different in ours."
Four years ago, the state legalized cannabis oils with less than 0.9 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC to control seizures in children with epilepsy
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Last year, the General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, a bill green-lighting a pilot hemp-growing program that allowed 20 S.C. farmers to grow 20 acres of hemp each. Hemp is marijuana's close cousin, but without high enough levels of THC to get users high. The hemp will be used for products as varied as hemp oil, textiles and biomass. A bill allowing unlimited hemp cultivation, however, was stuck in committee this year.
And now medical marijuana, which many consider, rightly or wrongly, the gateway legislation to legalized recreational marijuana use, is inching ahead.
But for Jill Swing, that reasoning rings hollow. Her 10-year-old daughter, Mary Louise, has severe intractable epilepsy, can't speak and can't stand without help.
Mary Louise suffered from 800 to 1,000 seizures a day until the Swings began treating her with hemp oil in addition to the prescription drugs benzodiazepine and zonegran. The seizures dropped to 80 to 100 per day.
But Mary Louise is starting to have convulsive tonic-clonic seizures. So Jill and Mary Louise traveled to Maine recently to utilize medical marijuana, which has much higher levels of THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
"She was not seizure free," said Jill, who is president and founder of S.C. Compassionate Care Alliance, "but they almost completely went away. She was alert. She is nonverbal but started babbling. She was able to stand independently."
An amendment accepted by the committee on Thursday tightened the original bill by:
▪ Prohibiting the dispensing or smoking of marijuana in its leaf form and narrowing the number of qualifying health conditions that can be treated with cannabis. Marijuana derivatives would be dispensed only by methods such as oils, vapors and edibles.
▪ Allowing police access to every stage of growing, processing and dispensing marijuana
▪Tightening the qualifications for physicians to recommend medical marijuana as a treatment and require them to enroll in continuing education classes on the subject.
It is unlikely that a medical marijuana bill will pass the General Assembly this year, however. The bill's Senate sponsor, Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, on Thursday said it would take "a miracle."
An identical House bill has not yet had a hearing before the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee. And, under legislative rules, if one house doesn't pass the bill by April 10, it would be difficult for the other to pass it this legislative session.
Senate opponents of the bill will likely take a lot of time to debate the issue. For instance, state Sen. Tom Corbin of Greenville, a medical committee member, said he had "myriad" questions about the bill.
He said legalizing medical marijuana, even in a nonsmoking form as is being considered, "opens a Pandora's box" and is "another step to acclimatization of marijuana in South Carolina for recreational use."
But advocates argue that medical marijuana is a common sense alternative to highly addictive opioid painkillers, considered a major problem in South Carolina and the nation.
"We have this discussion about how to tackle the opioid crisis," Davis said. "How do we address what everybody acknowledges is a societal catastrophe? How do we get people off these addictive and debilitating drugs? . . . It seems to me intellectually dishonest to not be talking about cannabis as a way to ween our citizens from dependance on and use of opiates."
Supporters say that even without passage, the table is set to revisit the issue next session.
"I'll keep pushing this rock," Davis said.
Even Keel said he sympathizes with Swing, but there are many questions to be answered.
"I'm compassionate, too, from the standpoint of children we can help," he said. "But I'm very concerned about all the children in the state when government endorses something, that people think it's OK."
Swing said she hopes the discussions about medical marijuana over the past session would bring more opponents like Keel to the table to find a way to get it to her daughter, Mary Louise.
Keel and other opponents "are putting the well-being of healthy kids over my special needs kid," she said. "All medicine should be kept out of the hands of children. Even granny's heart pills."