A bill that would legalize the medical use of marijuana is advancing in the South Carolina House after a unanimous vote by the House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, February 21st. The panel lasted over three hours and featured over 20 speakers, most patients, who testified on how marijuana relieves symptoms of chronic pain, severe epilepsy, and PTSD, among others.
David Newsom, Director of Governmental Affairs for Compassionate South Carolina says of the hearing, “It was fantastic, it was energetic, it was very positive, and it was very moving, as those testimonies normally are. You’re dealing with patients who are in extreme need of medical cannabis, and they need another course of treatment, or an alternative course that’s healthier and less addictive. Marijuana has about 7% addiction rate, versus some of these other opioids that are over 50% and much higher.”
The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act and its Detractors
The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act would allow physicians to recommend the therapeutic use of marijuana for those with debilitating or chronic diseases. “It’s extremely unfortunate,” says Newsom, “what we don’t have access to in this state, but it was a very positive hearing, it was very moving. And the reception from the legislators that sat on the committee was very warm, and there were a lot of representatives sitting on that panel for passing this Bill. There were very few that were in opposition.”
From the subcommittee, it went on to the full committee who also passed the bill that same day. “Chairman Hart, who is the chairman of that committee (the House Committee on Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs), he runs his committees a little bit different. He allows other legislators who are interested in the Bill to sit in on committees and will either allow them to talk and ask questions because he believes in a very informed government approach to things. So, any representative who wants to sit in the subcommittee hearing that he chairs on this topic [can] educate themselves. I love that approach about him, and I wish more lawmakers would do that.”
The names of those who were lined up to testify to the panel filled up over two pages, and only a few were in opposition of the bill. Almost all were patients in need of medical cannabis, their parents, and their doctors. “The hearing went very well and we were extremely surprised at how little opposition there was, compared to years prior when there was an enormous amount of opposition, mainly from law enforcement but from some other entities as well.”
Among those opposed were State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel who on Tuesday asked legislators not to “be swayed by those who play upon your sympathies.” He referred to cannabis as a “street drug” that is being used to treat nearly everything.
“There are a lot of legislators that are opposed to it,” says Newsom, “but we are working diligently to educate them and bring them around and show them that this is not a dangerous thing here. We’re not creating an epidemic or anything like that. We’re simply advocating for quality of life; that’s what this is, a quality of life Bill—that’s all this is. I don’t think there should be a lot of opposition, but we feel that at this point, through these many times that a Bill has been dropped on this issue we are in a better standing than we ever have been, and we’re confident. We would love to see it go through this year but the reality of the situation is this will be a two-year legislative fight.”
Becky Dansky, Legislative Council for the Marijuana Policy Project, agrees with the two-year timeframe. “That was MMP’s estimation when we decided to get involved in South Carolina,” Dansky told Southern Cannabis. “That this would be up to a two-year fight, which is remarkable even to be saying when a year ago the thought of a move in South Carolina seemed a big absurd but this issue is moving so quickly across our country.”
A Two-Year Fight for Two Ounces of Medical Marijuana
If passed, the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act would allow patients access to possess up to two ounces of marijuana purchased from a licensed dispensary if their physician certifies that the patient could benefit from the drug. That could mean a lot of relief for South Carolina veterans suffering from PTSD. “Somebody told me that they have the highest per capita military service of any state, which does not surprise me based on the number of veterans I’ve spoken to,” says Dansky. “And it’s not just about PTSD for veterans; it’s also about chronic, severe, and debilitating pain. A lot of these folks come back with serious injuries, and the VA wants to put them on a heavy dose of opioids, and a lot of them don’t want to do that. They want to choose a safer option that doesn’t have the side effects and the dependency and the withdrawal symptoms.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.” Though South Carolina has not seen a “statistically significant” increase in drug overdose deaths, the state did experience an increase of 9% between the years 2014-2015. Fentanyl, for example, is a synthetic opioid, that is more than 25 times as potent as heroin, and is currently in use for pain management for terminally ill cancer patients.
In comparing the chemotherapy treatment she received while fighting cancer and the opiate drug she received while recovering from a broken ankle, Dansky says in no uncertain terms that coming off of the opiate was the more miserable experience.
The next step for this bipartisan bill is for Chairman Howard to either hold a hearing or a vote it to go before it goes to the full Committee. From there, it will be debated on by the House Committee on Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs (or the 3M Committee), and they will decide on whether it gets moved to the Senate floor. Newsom points out, however, that the Chairman can move the matter to the floor himself. The good news, says Newsom, is that if the bill stalls on one side of the House or the Senate when the session is over then when the House resumes its session next year the bill gets picked up right where it left off without having to start the process over.