Politics & Government

S.C. Senate panel considering medical marijuana bill


If some state legislators have their way, South Carolina patients battling certain illnesses will soon have a new option for treatment: marijuana.

The medical affairs committee of the S.C. Senate is considering a bill that would create options for the legal, medicinal use of the drug in South Carolina. The committee was scheduled to meet Thursday in Columbia to consider moving the bill to the floor of the Senate, but the meeting was canceled Wednesday afternoon.

Local activist Rosemary Wallace is a proponent of the bill. She appeared at a subcommittee hearing in September that advanced the measure to the full committee, and she spoke to the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce for its support of the proposal.

An Army veteran, Wallace splits her time between Rock Hill and Colorado, where she has a state-issued medical marijuana card for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical ailments. Now, as executive director of the Carolinas Cannabis Coalition, Wallace hopes to see a more limited version of marijuana reform pass the S.C. General Assembly.

“I want to get as many people there as possible,” Wallace said of Thursday’s committee hearing. “I’ve been part of a letter-writing and email campaign to raise awareness and coverage of the bill. I’ve even talked about it in churches.”

The York County Regional Chamber’s government relations task force met with Wallace as it weighed whether to take a public position for or against the bill. Bob Norwood, a member of the task force and executive director of the substance abuse nonprofit York County All on Board, said the group decided Tuesday against taking a public position until after it’s considered by the Senate committee.

“We looked into it because some of our members asked us to monitor the bill,” Chamber president Rob Youngblood said. “There were some concerns about it they brought up.”

One of those concerns is what liabilities an employer might face if an employee is using marijuana. Norwood cites an American Medical Association study that showed a 55 percent increase in industrial accidents and 85 percent increase in injuries among workers who test positive for marijuana.

Wallace doesn’t think that should be a bigger concern than other medications employees can already use.

“You have employees right now who wouldn’t pass a drug test,” she said. “I know people who, if they get hurt (at work), would wait to go to the ER because they do not want to lose their job.”

Keystone Substance Abuse Services in Rock Hill is also monitoring the bill, and director Janet Martini said she’s asked Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, to ensure any products made available through the program meet strict safety and availability standards.

“We want to ensure ... some kind of mechanism to keep out substances like pesticides,” Martini said.

One area of concern for Keystone is cannabidiol or CBD oil, which the Legislature legalized in 2014 for treatment of certain seizure conditions but that Martini worries is otherwise unregulated. She hopes the bill will set stricter standards for the oil’s availability.

“You can get it at the corner store, but it’s not vetted or tested. It’s only supposed to have 0.9 percent THC, which is what gets you high,” she said.

An expansion of medical marijuana’s availability in South Carolina, Martini said, could lead to full legalization of the recreational use of the drug.

“It’s so difficult to manage with medical marijuana cards that Colorado just opened it up to recreational use,” Martini said. “Now Colorado has more dispensaries than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.”

Last week, Keystone and All on Board co-hosted a “Blunt Talk” summit at Winthrop University focused on the effects of marijuana legalization, featuring an addiction center manager from Colorado.

For her part, Wallace hopes the measure will advance out of the committee, so people like her can more freely use marijuana products as a treatment option at home.

“If only one state is free, then nobody is free,” she said.

But Hayes, a member of the Senate committee, said a “controversial” proposal like this will likely take several meetings of the medical affairs committee to advance.

Thursday’s meeting would have been the first time the full committee has taken up the bill this session, and, unlike last September’s subcommittee hearing, it wasn’t scheduled to hear any public testimony.

Even if the committee ultimately sends a version of the bill to the full Senate, “reaching the floor of the Senate and passing the Senate are not the same thing,” Hayes said.

“The roads bill got to the floor,” Hayes said of a particularly contentious piece of legislation that has held up Senate business for weeks. “Getting this passed is probably going to be difficult.”

Any one of 46 senators can place a hold on a contentious bill, meaning the chamber would have to consider a “special order” to bring it up for a vote.

With everything else on the General Assembly’s calendar between now and the end of the two-year session in June, Hayes said, “I don’t see it being able to compete for a special order.”

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome