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Medical marijuana might help sick kids in SC. But will it put other children at risk?

Sen. Tom Davis and SLED chief Mark Keel are the leading voices in the debate over medical marijuana. While Davis wants to make the drug available to those whose suffering could be lessened with its use, Keel thinks legalization will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.

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In 2014, state Sen. Tom Davis, a Libertarian-leaning Republican from Beaufort County, was speaking to a Rotary Club when he met Harriet Hilton, whose granddaughter Mary Louise, 7 years old at the time, had intractable epilepsy and suffered up to 100 seizures an hour.

Hilton said traditional medicines didn’t help much. But Mary Louise’s mother, Jill Swing of Charleston, took her to Maine for a month to participate in a visiting patient program for treatment under a doctor’s care with tetrahydrocannabinol, also called THC. THC is the compound in marijuana that gets you high.

Mary Louise’s life improved, Swing said: She was once mute, but began to speak; she started standing on her own; her hyper-sensitivity to light lessened; she was able to be outside in the sunshine more; and, her seizures decreased.

”It made a tremendous difference,” Swing said. “She was really, really a completely a different child..”

After that, “I was convinced that (cannabis) had medicinal benefits for the people of South Carolina,” Davis said. ”I saw a girl who was drugged into a stupor, and I saw with my own eyes the difference it can make in people’s lives.

“If you would meet these families and see how they are suffering, there is no way in the world that you would stand in the way of what a doctor thinks is in their best interest,” he said.

Since then, Davis has become the most dominate politician in the Palmetto State’s debate over cannabis. He authored the state law that approved the use of CBD oil in 2014.

For the past five years, Davis has authored and championed the S.C. Compassionate Care Act, which would legalize marijuana for medical use. The bill would allow patients, when authorized by a doctor, to purchase every two weeks up to 2 ounces of marijuana or an equivalent derivative from one of up to 68 dispensaries around the state.

(The marijuana would be grown in South Carolina and distributed in a minimum of one dispensary in each of the state’s 46 counties. One dispensary would be authorized for every 20 pharmacy licenses, for a total of 68 dispensaries.)

Davis was on the staff of former-Gov. Mark Sanford, eventually serving as chief of staff. In 2008, he was elected to the state Senate.

An attorney, he is intense on the Senate floor and always highly prepared with an encyclopedic knowledge of any topic he takes on.

After his first medical marijuana bill failed to pass in 2015, Davis took to the floor of the Senate for 33 days straight, and each day introduced to the chamber a person who said they could benefit from using medical marijuana. He told their stories, and had them meet their senators.

“He took it as a point of personal privilege,” Swing said. “He told all of their stories. (Mary Louise) was the first one.”

But despite his doggedness, those who know Davis well say that away from the State House, he’s surprisingly easy going. He has three daughters, which is part of the reason he is fighting so hard for the bill, he said.

“They are all in good health,” he said. “But in the course of getting the cannabis oil law passed ... I met so many families who were literally being ripped apart because they couldn’t get the medicine they needed to feel better.”

Top cop

In the medical marijuana debate, Davis has a formidable foil in the quiet but commanding figure of State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. Keel is adamantly opposed to legalizing marijuana for myriad reasons, but particularly for the danger it could pose to children.

Being at the forefront of the war on drugs is nothing new to Keel.

At age 8, Keel decided he wanted to be a police officer after meeting his best friend’s grandfather, who was a SLED agent.

“As I grew up, I got to know other SLED agents in my hometown (of Barnwell) and the role they played was pretty important,” he said. “So that was my goal.”

When he was 19, the Orangeburg sheriff’s department sent Keel undercover, posing as a student at a public high school to penetrate a youth drug ring.

At 22, Keel, then a city of Denmark patrol officer, joined SLED. He rose through the ranks, serving in every department except forensics. He even learned to fly a helicopter, used mainly to spot and eradicate marijuana fields.

Known for his dark suits and cowboy boots, Keel was passed over for SLED chief by Sanford; but in 2011 he was appointed the state’s top cop by then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

SLED Chief Mark Keel opposes medical marijuana legislation. Keel believes legalization will lead to greater access by children. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

He approaches the war on drugs as a sacred mission, one that saves lives.

Keel, in a January press conference, shared the podium with doctors from the S.C. Medical Association, which also opposes the bill.

“The doctors represented here and many more like them show compassion each and every day for children and adults that suffer from debilitating disease,” he said. “They (also) care for those injured as a result of drugged and drunk driving and in life-saving efforts to those who are victims of gun violence resulting from drug trafficking.”

Most conservative bill?

Last year, the Compassionate Care Act advanced to the floor of both the S.C. House and Senate; but the session ended before the bill could be debated by the full chambers.

This year, Davis resubmitted the bill with renewed vigor. He met with its chief opponents — including SLED, the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association and the Medical Association — and vetted amendments as chair of a Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee.

Earlier this month the subcommittee passed the bill on to the full committee, with amendments drawn from Davis’ and other senators’ meeting with stakeholders. It goes before the full committee next Thursday.

The bill now limits which doctors can authorize marijuana use — for example, ear, eye and nose specialists cannot authorize cannabis use for epilepsy. The doctor has to have expertise in the illness he or she is authorizing marijuana as treatment.

And it now includes money to research ways to detect if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana. That’s difficult to determine now because, unlike driving under the influence of alcohol, there’s no standard for how much THC — tetrahydrocannabino, the compound in marijuana that gets you high — causes someone to be impaired. Also, for regular marijuana users, THC can remain in their bodies for up to 30 days, which means someone who tests positive may not have used marijuana for days before being tested.

The bill also bans certain transportation workers from using cannabis and tightens the definition of a debilitating disease, among other amendments.

Davis is promising “the most socially conservative, strictly regulated medical cannabis bill in the country,” one that allows marijuana to be consumed to treat “a very tightly defined universe of debilitating conditions. ”

See highlights of the legislation here.

The Medical Association notes , however, that about a dozen states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, including Texas, only allow low-THC CBD oil extracted from marijuana. Texas also requires the authorization of two state-approved doctors after the use of two FDA-approved drugs prove ineffective.

“After reviewing the Texas marijuana statute, the marijuana legalization bill currently before the South Carolina legislature is neither the most conservative bill nor the most restrictive marijuana legislation in America,” said March Seabrook, president of the state medical association.

Davis said he hopes changes that have and will be made in the bill will make it palatable to his more doubting colleagues and Gov. Henry McMaster, who has said he will follow Keel’s lead.

“Whenever you talk about cannabis and marijuana, people’s antennas go up, particularly in the Upstate, where people are more conservative,” he said.

Not allowed to smoke it

Keel will likely not be swayed.

He said legalization “will open a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences,” and paints a landscape of despair, where neon-lit dispensaries pop up like video poker casinos, weed leaks out of the system like water and young people get hooked on THC-laced edibles that look like candy and move on to harder drugs.

And he views the legalization of “medical” marijuana — a term he rejects — as a step toward recreational pot.

The legalization model throughout the country “has run from CBD to hemp to medical to recreational,” he said.

And he said that “big marijuana” interests are following the traditional model of “big tobacco,” which gets kids hooked at an early age to have customers for life.

Keel noted that in the 34 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, and the 10 states that have approved recreational marijuana, children 12 to 17 years old tend to smoke pot at higher rates than those who haven’t.

And he pointed to one facet of the bill he finds particularly ironic: A “patient” could purchase up to two ounces of botanical marijuana — the natural green buds — but legally can’t smoke it. However, a violation carries a rather low fine of $150.

“That decriminalizes it,” Keel said.

Edibles and other derivatives are even more insidious, he said, because THC levels can be manipulated much higher than in leaf weed, causing sickness.

Recreational edibles containing marijuana-derived CBD oil are sold in Myrtle Beach, SC. A study by RTI International found that states that legalize medical marijuana for a wide variety of uses have higher rates of mental illness. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

There are other issues, he said: Medical cards from other states would be accepted, leading to abuse; folks would likely go to work stoned, affecting the workplace; and drugged driving would likely increase, causing more deaths on the highways.

“In my 40-plus years of public service, never have I seen legislation introduced in the General Assembly that has the potential to change South Carolina in such a negative way,” he said.

Touting amendments

It is unlikely that the bill will be voted on by the House and Senate this year.

The full Medical Affairs Committee takes up the issue Thursday; but, the bill faces a Wednesday deadline to pass from the Senate to the House. After that, the chances of passage this year are nearly zero.

If it isn’t transferred Wednesday, the General Assembly would take up the issue in 2020, the second year of this two-year session.

Davis can use that time to continue to craft amendments.

For instance, one now allows doctors to opt out of the program. It was added because the medical association said the bill would require doctors to recommend treatments not approved by the FDA.

Also, the bill says anyone who passes marijuana or its derivatives to someone else can be convicted of a felony, with a sentence of up to five years in jail. Also, driving under the influence would carry a $1,000 fine, and employers would be empowered to take action against employees who are high at work.

“We have an opportunity to show the country what a strong medical bill looks like,” he said.

Polls show the people want it

Recent polls have shown strong support for legalization of marijuana for medical use in the Palmetto State:

In 2016, a Winthrop University poll showed nearly 4 in 5 S.C. residents — or 78 percent — supported legalizing medical marijuana. (Meanwhile, only 39 percent of South Carolinians said they support legalizing pot for recreational use, a move opposed by 54 percent of those surveyed.)

In January of last year a statewide Mason-Dixon poll found that South Carolina voters support legalizing medical marijuana 61 percent to 31 percent.

In June 2018, South Carolina Democrats gave medical marijuana a landslide victory in a non-binding ballot resolution in their primary, with 82 percent declaring that doctors should be allowed to authorize the drug.

And in January, Benchmark Research shows that 72 percent of 400 South Carolinians polled support legalizing medical marijuana, including 84 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 63 percent of Republicans.

‘Pot party’

The campaigns are heating heating up around the bill. And it has already gotten ugly.

Attorney General Alan Wilson was roundly derided when, during a January press conference, he declared marijuana “the most dangerous drug ... in the world.” He spent the next few days walking back on the statement, explaining that he meant it was dangerous because it was the most widely abused and misunderstood drug.

Wilson declined to be interviewed for this series.

Anonymous mailer attacks state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, for his medical marijuana bill.

And in February, Davis was vilified by an anonymous mailer that went out to the Lowcountry’s 1st Congressional District where he resides and other areas of the state. It showed the lawmaker in a Hawaiian shirt holding a giant bag of weed, surrounded by bikini-clad women, one smoking a bong.

It proclaimed Davis wants to turn South Carolina into “one big pot party.”

Davis played it off, joking on the Senate floor that women that attractive would never come to one of his parties. And medical marijuana advocates have scheduled an official “pot party” at a bar in Charleston for April 20 — or 4/20, a day which annually is dedicated to celebrating pot.

Some supporters said that Wilson’s hyperbole and the anonymous mailer might actually help the bill’s passage. Davis described the mailing as “a canary in the coal mine” and said it indicates the bill is gaining traction

But even it does, Keel, like the western gambler his mustache, cowboy boots and slow Southern drawl suggest, has an ace up his sleeve.

McMaster has said he would follow Keel’s lead on the issue. And some pundits have declared that the governor will veto it if it reaches his desk.

But Davis said that he will work for an override, and if unsuccessful, will take up the issue once against next session.

“We’ll start rolling the rock up the hill again,” he said.

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Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.