SC: Passage Of Medical Marijuana Bills Hinges On Law Enforcement

Photo Credit: Seanna Adcox

Crediting marijuana with saving his son’s life, the former longtime director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association says it’s time for law enforcement to stop fighting legislation that would let the severely ill legally use the plant as medicine.

“This doesn’t have to be the boogeyman under the bed for law enforcement forever,” Jeff Moore, who retired in 2014 after 32 years leading the association, said at a Statehouse rally last week supporting medical marijuana.

The effort hinges on the Sheriffs’ Association and, more importantly, State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who told The Post and Courier he remains opposed.

Proposals in the House and Senate would allow people with a debilitating medical condition, or their adult caregivers, to legally possess 2 ounces of marijuana. The Senate version advanced on a 3-2 vote last week to the full Medical Affairs Committee. The House version advanced a year ago but remains a step away from a floor vote.

Both will stay stuck, despite the backing of some of the Legislature’s most conservative members, without a buy-in from Keel, who has repeatedly testified against the idea.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow comprehensive medical marijuana programs but only two of those are in the South. Arkansas and Florida voters approved theirs through the ballot in 2016. Neither is in place yet.

Louisiana passed a law in 2016 but it’s not considered comprehensive because it doesn’t allow the smoking or vaping of marijuana.

Roughly 80 percent of South Carolinians surveyed in a 2016 Winthrop Poll supported legalizing marijuana for medical uses. Nationally, 64 percent participating in a Gallop poll last October supported legalizing it altogether.

Beaufort state Sen. Tom Davis, who’s sponsored the bill since 2015, said he remains hopeful to find a compromise this year that convinces Keel the “seed-to-sale” tracking would safeguard against recreational use and people won’t be able to simply feign an illness.

Changes made to the bill last week include removing patients’ ability to legally smoke a joint. Options would be vaping the oil or eating products made with marijuana.

“South Carolina has a chance to show what a truly conservative, medical policy looks like,” said Davis, a Republican.

Keel confirmed he’s pledged to Davis if they could find a way that doesn’t “violate my oath to uphold laws of this state and the United States, I would do it.”

Last week’s changes don’t come anywhere close: “It’s just a repackaging of the same thing,” he said.

Without congressional action to legalize marijuana or U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a drug derived from the plant, the only path Keel finds acceptable would involve expanded research trials at the state’s medical schools.

Marijuana’s federal status is also a stickler for the state Sheriffs’ Association. Director Jarrod Bruder has said sheriffs can’t support legalizing a drug the federal government still puts in the same class as heroin and cocaine.

Four years ago, legislators passed a very narrow law allowing patients with severe epilepsy, or their caregivers, to legally possess cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive oil derived from hemp.

Jill Swing, of Charleston, said patients like her 10-year-old daughter, who can suffer hundreds of seizures daily, could be better helped with the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in marijuana. Others who have filled legislative hearings to seek legal access to the plant include people suffering from multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moore, the former Sheriff’s Association director, has testified for his son, an Army veteran. Two tours in Iraq left him suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He was honorably discharged after two suicide attempts and eventually moved near his in-laws in Michigan, where he can legally smoke a high-CBD, low-THC strain of marijuana that Moore says has turned his life around.

But he’s essentially “exiled” because he fears getting arrested if he comes home to South Carolina, Moore said, adding marijuana could also help his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Keel said he can’t envision any law that would keep marijuana out of children’s hands, and that’s who he’s fighting for.

“We’ve got an opioid crisis now. We’re talking about passing a law allowing another drug to be marketed and sold in our state,” Keel said. “It doesn’t matter what regulations you have, if you have growers and processors in South Carolina, young people are going to get it.”

Advocates like Mack Hudson, 26, of Lexington, see marijuana as a better alternative than the highly addictive opioids he’s been prescribed in increasingly stronger doses since a car wreck 10 years ago left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Hudson said he often makes himself suffer in pain because his percocet and roxicodone prescriptions leave him feeling “drugged up and out of it and not able to focus.” The marijuana he’s tried on trips to California and Colorado “just levels me out and relaxes me.”

Bill Nettles, a U.S. attorney in South Carolina during the Obama administration, said there’s overwhelming evidence nationwide that medical cannabis helps patients suffering a wide range of illnesses and it’s only a matter of time before South Carolina gets on board.

“The only question that remains is how many lives will be ruined before our legislation reflects our compassion and intellect on an issue that is no longer novel,” he said.

At last week’s rally, Swing, founder of the Compassionate Care Alliance, accused House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, of blocking the legislation. She called on him to allow a committee vote.

Legislators are forcing South Carolina patients to choose between three bad choices, she said.

“Patients can either treat illegally — risking arrest and the loss of the children they’re fighting for — they can contemplate a costly move, leaving behind their families and friends, or they can stay and suffer,” Swing said. “The day for hope is over. We need action.”

Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Townville Republican who is a co-sponsor of the bill, also blamed the chamber’s leader.

Lucas did not respond to requests for comment last week, but House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, said the chamber’s GOP leaders are committed to working with all sides on the sensitive issue, and “law enforcement’s concerns must be carefully vetted” before any action is taken.

Rep. Leon Howard, chairman of the House medical committee, said Lucas is just being realistic. Howard, a Columbia Democrat who supports the bill, said there are enough votes in his committee to send it to the floor, but that would only be a symbolic move that would essentially lie to the public.

“It’s going to be null and void,” Howard said. “SLED and other law enforcement are ready to kill the bill. We don’t want to give people false hope.”