The debate over legalized medical marijuana in South Carolina
South Carolina’s top two law enforcement officials held a news conference at the State House on Wednesday to build opposition to the legalization of medical marijuana in the Palmetto State.
Attorney General Alan Wilson joined State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel to rally opposition to the Compassionate Care Act. They were joined by representatives of the S.C. Medical Association, the S.C. Sheriff’s Association and others in a coalition to lobby against bills in both the House and Senate.
“This bill basically decriminalizes marijuana” Wilson said. “We need to think long and hard before we jump into this issue.”
South Carolina is poised to become the 34th state to legalize marijuana for medical use after the Compassionate Care Act advanced out of committee to the floor of both the House and Senate last year. Time ran out in the legislative session, however, before the issue could be debated by the General Assembly as a whole.
This year, in a new two-year legislative session, advocates say the measure has a chance of of passing.
“After five years of fighting for patients to have access to medical marijuana, I feel we finally have a bill that is so conservative and restrictive that it would be foolish for legislators to not vote for it,” said Janel Ralph of Conway, chairwoman of Compassionate South Carolina and owner of Palmetto Synergistic Research, which produces Palmetto Harmony CBD hemp oil. “Especially when an overwhelming majority of their constituents support this bill.”
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, filed the S.C. Compassionate Care Act in the Senate, where it has been assigned to the Medical Affairs Committee. It has three co-sponsors, all Democrats.
State Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has filed the same bill in the S.C. House, where it has been assigned to the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee. It has 10 co-sponsors from both parties.
Davis has called the bill “the most conservative in the country.” The program would be administered by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control with SLED oversight. It also bans the sale, use or distribution of marijuana in its leaf form.
He also accused Wilson and other speakers of using scare tactics to move people’s emotions on the subject.
“It’s like walking back into a 1950s remake of ‘Reefer Madness,’” he said. ”We had the attorney general of South Carolina look the people in the eye and say, ‘The most dangerous drug in America is marijuana.’”
The law would allow possession of derivatives such as oil up to the equivalent of 2 ounces of pot. They would be sold in free-standing outlets in all 46 counties.
The use of marijuana for medical purposes has growing public support. Several polls have shown that a majority of South Carolinians favor legalization of marijuana for medical use.
Last month, a Benchmark Research poll showed that 72 percent of 400 South Carolinians polled support legalization, including 84 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 63 percent of Republicans.
But the alliance of law enforcement and doctors could be potent.
Law enforcement officials fear it would open a “Pandora’s Box” of problems, such as drugged driving, and is a step toward legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
“There are 5 million people in South Carolina and we don’t want them to be victims of the unintended consequences of this bill,” Keel, the SLED chief, said.
Also, Gov. Henry McMaster has said he would follow law enforcement’s lead on the bill, which could mean a veto even if the bill passed both houses of the General Assembly.
And the medical association, which represents 6,000 of the state’s 18,000 physicians, argues that physicians shouldn’t be the threshold for medical marijuana, because it is not a medicine recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“The Compassionate Care Act is not about medicine,” said Dr. March Seabrook, president of the medical association. “Marijuana is a plant and a drug. ... Marijuana is not a medication.”
But, Seabrook said, the association favors lowering marijuana from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug.
“So more comprehensive research can be conducted,” he said.
The major tenets of the bill are:
▪ Marijuana can’t be sold or smoked in leaf form, but can only be used in forms such as vaporized oil, gel caps, suppositories, patches or topical creams.
▪ The marijuana would have to be prescribed by a doctor in a “bona fide” relationship with a patient with a “debilitating medical condition.” Those qualifying conditions, such as PTSD, epilepsy and glaucoma, are listed in the bill.
▪ Registered patients or caregivers would be able to possess the equivalent of up to 2 ounces of marijuana.
▪ Patients between 18 and 23 must have certification letters from two doctors. Younger patients would have to have the treatments dispensed by a registered caregiver, such as a parent.
▪ Proceeds from the sale of medical marijuana products would be split between SLED, DHEC, the general fund and medical cannabis research and development.
▪ DHEC would administer the program. SLED would monitor it.
▪ The program would also be overseen by a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board with representation from SLED, DHEC and eight other members nominated by the governor and approved by the Senate.
▪ DHEC would be required to license a minimum of one dispensary in each county and a maximum of one dispensary for every 20 active pharmacy licenses.
▪ The dispensaries would be privately owned and free-standing.
▪ DHEC would form a commission to oversee the licensing of those dispensaries.
▪ The state would also license five laboratories to test cannabis products to ensure proper labeling.
▪ DHEC would license 15 marijuana cultivation centers and 30 processing facilities.
▪ Each dispensary would contract or employ a pharmacist, physician assistant or clinical practical nurse.