COLUMBIA — In the flurry of activity near the end of this year’s legislative session, a proposal to legalize medical marijuana quietly passed committees in both the S.C. House and Senate and was sent to the floor of both chambers.
The passage came too late for consideration in either the House or Senate this year. But the bill represents more than four years of legislative compromise that supporters say will have a much better chance of passing next year.
And those chances could get a boost on Tuesday. A nonbinding ballot initiative — essentially a litmus test — on legalization of medical marijuana will be included on the Democratic primary ballot.
“It allows the party to take the temperature of the electorate,” said Bill Nettles, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina.
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Nettles heads Palmetto Medical Cannabis LLC, a group advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in South Carolina.
Nettles, appointed by then-President Barack Obama to serve as U.S. attorney from 2010 to 2016, requested both the S.C. Republican Party and S.C. Democratic Party include the advisory referendum on their primary ballots.
The Democrats agreed. The Republicans didn’t.
“It’s an issue that is becoming a larger part of the legislative and criminal justice discussions in S.C.,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, the Charleston County Democratic chairman. “This is a great tool to allow us to gauge how Democratic voters feel on this issue.”
Efforts to receive comment from the Republican Party were unsuccessful Friday.
Advocates note that legalization of medical marijuana has wide popular support in the Palmetto State.
In a question asked exclusively for The State newspaper 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.
The Democratic referendum could back those polls.
“If it comes out favorably, it will show the legislators at the State House that their constituents support this issue and they should vote for it,” said Janel Ralph of Conway, executive director of the Compassionate South Carolina patient advocacy group.
Several studies have shown that medical marijuana can help patients who suffer from several health issues, according to inhalemd.com. They include anxiety, symptoms of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, depression and glaucoma.
But medical marijuana also has serious opposition, most notably from the state’s top law enforcement official, SLED Chief Mark Keel.
Keel said the legalization of the use of CBD oils (cannabis compounds) and the growing of non-psychoactive hemp approved last year, coupled now with the push to legalize medical marijuana, is the national model for legalizing recreational cannabis.
“That’s what we’ve seen in every state,” Keel told The State newspaper after the Senate committee vote. “There’s not a state that hasn’t (gone) in steps. And we’ve seen our state go through the same steps. From CDB oil to hemp to medical marijuana to recreational marijuana. And that’s what we’ve seen in every state . So I have no reason to think it’s going to be any different in ours.”
But there have been abundant compromises in the House and Senate bill to to try to mollify law enforcement, advocates said.
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The changes include:
▪ Prohibiting the dispensing or smoking of marijuana in its leaf form and narrowing the number of qualifying health conditions that can be treated with cannabis. Marijuana derivatives would be dispensed only by methods such as oils, vapors and edibles.
▪ Allowing police access to every stage of growing, processing and dispensing marijuana.
▪ Tightening the qualifications for physicians to recommend medical marijuana as a treatment and require them to enroll in continuing education classes on the subject.
And advocates argue that legalizing medical marijuana would help curb the use and misuse of opioid drugs in South Carolina.
Opioid deaths here increased by 21 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Abuse Services. In 2016, there were 616 opioid-related deaths in South Carolina — twice the number of people who were murdered or died in car wrecks.
There were 101 opioid-related deaths in Horry County, according to the agency, followed by 65 in Charleston County and 53 in Greenville County.
Not providing a nonaddictive, legal alternative to those narcotics doesn’t make sense, Nettles said, who noted that the Compassionate Care Act, as the bill is known, has strong bipartisan support. The Senate bill’s primary author and advocate is state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
“Republicans and Democrats believe that individuals that are ill should have access to cannabis as a medicine,” he said. “And the math is clear that it’s helpful on opioid use if nothing else.”
The Democratic ballot also includes an advisory question on Medicare and Medicaid expansion.
The Republican ballot includes advisory questions asking whether voters should have the right choose a party affiliation when they register to vote, and if the state tax code should mirror the federal tax code following passage of the Republican tax cuts.