Despite concerns, support for ‘medical cannabis’ gaining in Lowcountry

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Sarah Hurst is willing to consider just about any medical treatment that will help her 4-year-old daughter. So it didn’t sit well with her when she heard a top South Carolina law-enforcement officer label the hemp oil her daughter takes to help control seizures as “snake oil.”

“I’ve seen it stop a seizure after three minutes,” says Hurst, 34, of Bluffton.

Maj. Frank O’Neal, a supervisor in the narcotics advice section of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, made the remark at a Sept. 5 forum in Hilton Head sponsored by the Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth, a group opposed to legalization of medical marijuana in the state.

O’Neal told the gathering that legalizing marijuana for medical use, as 29 states have done, is really legalizing it for recreational use, as well.

“We’re talking about de facto legalization when we talk about medical marijuana, because everybody gets a card” when they seek a doctor’s approval to use the drug, he said. “Nobody doesn’t get a card.”

While studies have found that states that have legalized the drug for recreational have seen small increases in use, an analysis of 2,999 scientific papers published in the journal Addiction in February concluded that, “current evidence does not support the hypothesis that U.S. medical marijuana laws (MMLs) until 2014 have led to increases in adolescent marijuana use prevalence.”

For her part, Hurst isn’t interested in seeing recreational marijuana legalized in South Carolina. She just wants to help her daughter.

“If it can help with pain or PTSD or epilepsy, that’s a lot better than some of the alternatives out there that sedate you or are incredibly expensive,” she says. “I’m just a mom, trying to make sure my kid isn’t cut off from things that will help her in the future. … She’s not getting high.”

Despite lingering doubts among many of the state’s law-enforcement agencies — SLED Chief Mark Keel has said he won’t support legalizing medical marijuana until it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — state Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) believes a sea-change is at hand.

Davis sponsored the 2014 law that loosened the state’s ban on marijuana-derived products that do not contain the drug’s psychoactive component (tetrahydrocannabinol, or TCH), which allows Hurst’s daughter to use hemp oil. Now, despite watching his bill to legalize medical marijuana go down in the spring, he says he’s got the votes lined up to move it forward.

“I think we are on the precipice of enacting a full medical-cannabis bill. We are no longer having to make the case to legislators that there are medicinal uses for cannabis,” Davis says. He counts 31 “ayes” in the 46-member Senate, just enough to constitute the supermajority necessary to prevent a lawmaker from holding up the bill indefinitely.

Davis says his bill reflects the socially conservative majority in South Carolina and includes enough safeguards to ensure that “we can make (medical marijuana) available to patients who need it without leading us into a situation where it becomes legalized for recreational use or we have a medical policy that is so porous that it’s in reality” a recreational use law.

A January poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy found that 61 percent of South Carolina residents support a law allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients; 31 percent were opposed, and 8 percent had no opinion.

Davis’ bill, which he plans to refile in November, requires an ongoing, “real” relationship between a licensed physician and a medical-marijuana patient, including documentation and annual visits. It also would give SLED an integral role in monitoring growing and distribution of marijuana, so that it isn’t “diverted” from legal medical uses and would implement a “seed to sale” tracking program of virtually every cannabis plant being grown in the state. It would also require that licensed pharmacists be part of the dispensing process.

“South Carolina is a conservative state that wants a conservative bill,” Davis says. “Other states might not want that, but I want this bill to be the template for a state that is socially conservative.”

Davis says the bill is in keeping with his core conservative principles: “It seems to me that this is a very natural Republican issue. We are supposed to be about individual liberty and limited government. We’re not supposed to substitute politicians’ judgment for doctors’ judgment.”