“ONE SMALL BATTLE AT A TIME …”
By Amy Lazenby || In a state as socially conservative as South Carolina, those who favor the legalization of marijuana for medical use are not merely facing an uphill battle – they’re climbing a mountain. Misinformation, misperception, and the stigma caused by a long-fought (and failed) “War on Drugs,” have medical marijuana advocates at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to getting legislation passed to allow for therapeutic uses of the cannabis plant.
Two bills calling for the legalization of a specific marijuana derivative for medical use are making their way through both houses of the SC General Assembly this term. Allowing the limited use of Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant that has been shown to have medically therapeutic benefits without giving patients a mind-altering high, could be the first step in legitimizing medical marijuana in the Palmetto State.
Last fall, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began allowing clinical studies of CBD as an anti-seizure medication for patients with intractable epilepsy at the New York University School of Medicine and at the University of California at San Francisco. The drug – manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals and called “Epidiolex™” – comes in the form of an oil that is administered orally with a syringe dropper and is currently being prescribed by doctors to patients enrolled in the clinical trials.
South Carolina already has a little-known vehicle that allows patients to participate in this type of research. The Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act of 1980 authorized the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to engage in clinical studies regarding certain medical therapeutic uses of marijuana. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has never allocated funding for the law, and the program has lain dormant.
Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) and Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Dorchester) have filed similar bills in their respective chambers that would allow for the legal use of CBD for those suffering from debilitating seizure disorders. Both lawmakers were motivated by the plight of constituents’ grandchildren, who suffer from extreme forms of epilepsy that cause them to have hundreds of seizures daily.
Davis’ legislation, introduced last month, would revise the 1980 law to create a research program in conjunction with DHEC allowing CBD oil to be used as an anti-seizure medication. The Medical University of South Carolina would begin controlled CBD trials through the program, and only patients participating in those trials would be eligible to receive the drug. Horne’s similar bill would also allow the legal possession of CBD oil by patients who are participating in clinical trials supervised by DHEC for the purpose of treating severe seizure disorders. Both matters, which their sponsors emphasize are narrow in scope, are currently moving through the committee process.
Broadening the legislative scope considerably, Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) this week introduced a bill dubbed the “South Carolina Medical Marijuana Act.” Rutherford’s bill would authorize a patient who has one of several “debilitating medical conditions” listed in the act, and who has a medical verification form completed by a physician, to register with DHEC and obtain an identification card to use medical marijuana.
According to a press release accompanying the proposed act, the bill also authorizes certain persons to act as caregivers for patients under limited circumstances as well as provides for the operation of dispensaries to cultivate, grow, and dispense marijuana for medical purposes.
“Registered individuals would be allowed to possess up to six plants (three mature) and two ounces of marijuana for medical use,” Rutherford’s legislation states.
His bill also provides penalties for committing fraud in order to illegally obtain medical marijuana and defines it as a tangible item, therefore subjecting it to sales tax.
Which approach is more likely to succeed?
Given the socially conservative climate in South Carolina and the majority Republican make up of both houses of the General Assembly, Davis’ and Horne’s narrow proposals actually have a chance. Several Republican senators and House members (and some Democrats) have already co-sponsored the bills pertaining to CBD, and as the bills move through the committee process and more testimony is heard from those who will be able to benefit from the drug, several more will likely sign on. It is politically – and morally – difficult to look at a child debilitated by almost constant seizures and tell her that she cannot have access to a drug that will help her live a normal life and that won’t get her high.
The same can certainly be said of the patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV and Aids that would be covered by Rutherford’s bill, but by expanding the scope of conditions covered, the act runs into a problem that can’t be overlooked. Studies exist showing that medical marijuana can treat dozens of ailments, but the FDA has only allowed clinical trials of the drug, and only in the form of CBD oil, for one ailment – seizure disorders. Davis’ and Horne’s bills follow the FDA guidelines, giving those who use the drug in the manner prescribed immunity from federal prosecution. Rutherford’s broader proposal simply calls for the use of “medical marijuana” and even allows registered patients and caregivers to possess cannabis plants. This puts those who are using the drug at risk for federal prosecution, even if they are immune from state penalties under the proposed law. The states that have legalized medical marijuana in the manner that Rutherford prescribes are taking a chance that the feds will choose not to prosecute users for the possession of what remains a controlled substance under federal law.
To be clear, I am an advocate for the use of medical marijuana in the manner that Rep. Rutherford proposes. The therapeutic use of cannabis is an idea whose time has come, and I couldn’t agree more with Rutherford’s statement that “it’s time to move forward and put the health of our citizens ahead of politics.”
But I’m also aware that in a state that remains resistant to change, his bill doesn’t stand a chance – not because it’s a bad idea, but because SC is not ready for such a broad proposal.
In the Palmetto State, the push for medical marijuana will be fought one small battle at a time. The legalization of CBD for the treatment of seizure disorders is the first battle, and I believe that, because of its narrow scope, it is a winnable one.