The debate over legalized medical marijuana in South Carolina
Supporters of a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use presented a lineup of researchers, medical doctors and patients at a news conference at the State House on Tuesday, saying the bill’s supporters have been portrayed by law enforcement and others as undesirable, uninformed or purposely working toward legalizing recreational use of weed.
Twin House and Senate bills would allow patients to purchase up to 2 ounces of marijuana or its equivalent every two weeks if recommended by a doctor. Among those speaking in support of the bills were the vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, a doctor who specializes in opioid addiction, a hospice nurse, a breast cancer survivor and two military veterans suffering from pain and post-traumatic stress disorder from combat.
“They are not the scourge of the earth or hotheads,” said David Newsom, director of governmental affairs for the nonprofit Compassionate S.C. and father of a young child with a rare seizure disorder.
The news conference was in response to a similar presser held last month by the S.C. Medical Association, in which S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson called marijuana “the most dangerous drug” in America because it is “misunderstood.”
The association opposes the bill because it puts the onus on doctors to recommend marijuana or its derivatives — be they creams, oils, vapor or edibles — without those items being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina and one of the nation’s leading cannabis researchers, said the two primary compounds in marijuana, non-psychoactive CBD and THC — the stuff that gets you high — have been approved by the FDA for certain conditions, such as epilepsy in children and patients with AIDS or cancer.
“It’s not for us (healthy) people to tell these people they can’t have medical marijuana,” he said.
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 passing.
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, commonly known as 3M. 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 oversight by the State Law Enforcement Division. The bill also would ban the use of marijuana in its leaf form, so it wouldn’t be legal to smoke it.
Following Wilson’s news conference, Davis accused him 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, if passed, would allow possession of up to 2 ounces of pot.
The minimum number of dispensaries the bill requires is one in each of the state’s 46 counties. The maximum it allows is one for every 20 pharmacy licenses.
In December, 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.
SLED Chief Mark Keel has said he would only support marijuana for medical use if it was approved by the FDA, prescribed by a doctor and sold in pharmacies.
“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 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.
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.
“As with any large group of professionals, physicians are not monolithic,” said Patrick Dennis, the organization’s general counsel and senior vice president. “However, a vast majority through the South Carolina Medical Association remain opposed.”
The major tenets of the bill are:
▪ Marijuana could be purchased but not 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 recommended 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 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.