Local and State News

Are S.C. Lawmakers Receptive to Medical Marijuana?

By Corey Hutchins
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
South Carolina passed a law 34 years ago allowing the director of the state’s health agency to obtain and distribute marijuana to treat certain medical ailments.

Wayne Borders, the 30-year-old president of Columbia’s NORML chapter, has been having a pretty good 2014 so far. NORML stands for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and while Borders doesn’t live in Colorado or Washington, the two states that have legalized recreational weed use, he’s seeing a renewed look at pot policy here in the Palmetto State.

Columbia Rep. Todd Rutherford, who leads the Democratic Caucus in the S.C. House, says he’s working on legislation this session that would allow medical marijuana. You might think that’s a far-fetched idea in this Deep South, ruby red, evangelical state. But as it turns out, South Carolina passed a law 34 years ago allowing the director of the state’s health agency to obtain and distribute marijuana to treat certain medical ailments. However, no program based on that law, called the South Carolina Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, is currently up and running. That’s because there is a caveat in its language that says the director can only obtain marijuana through means that are consistent with federal law.

“To this point, marijuana is not legal under federal law,” says S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control attorney Cheryl Bullard. She adds, however, that there has been some relaxation of enforcement under the administration of President Barack Obama, which other states have used to loosen up their own laws. What she’s talking about is U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s historic move last September of telling the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Department of Justice would allow those states to set up regulated marijuana programs. The DOJ also sent letters to the U.S. attorneys in all 50 states outlining its priorities in enforcing federal marijuana laws. Those included keeping weed out of the hands of minors, interstate trafficking, drugged driving, and others.

But the feds did not change the classification of marijuana as an illegal narcotic.

“So, the legal issue becomes whether or not the current administration’s position on enforcement would trump the federal law, which still says that marijuana cannot be legally obtained,” Bullard says. “In this state, the law still is that marijuana is not available by prescription or otherwise because it is a Schedule 1 substance. Now, if the Legislature chooses to change that designation, then I’m sure the [DHEC] director would pursue an analysis through the agency as to whether or not she chooses to implement the program.”

Dullard admits she doesn’t know much about the legislative intent of the South Carolina program back in 1980, and she says the DHEC director at the time has since passed away from cancer. “I’m told it was to set up a program for just limited access for persons with diagnosis like glaucoma and for cancer, chemotherapy and radiology patients who are certified under a particular program,” she says.

Getting the pistons firing on that program is essentially what Rutherford aims to do this year. “We’re past time for decriminalizing marijuana, and I hope the rest of the General Assembly simply catches up with where I am,” he says. He adds that DHEC has forecast the cost of funding the state program at $450 million. “I don’t know where they’re getting that number from,” he says. “But either way, I think that we can fix that bill and allow doctors to prescribe marijuana in this state that is grown by farmers in this state that received a certificate to grow it.”

Borders, of NORML, says he’s still waiting to see what Rutherford’s legislation will look like, but hopes it goes further than just allowing DHEC to operate the program on a small scale.

“I know he’s going more the route of amending the 1980 law, but I want to make sure that he includes some measure for home cultivation,” Borders says.

While some Republicans at the State House seemed cool to the idea of medical marijuana when asked about it, others are open to exploration on the subject. Beaufort GOP Sen. Tom Davis, for instance, tells the story of a constituent’s daughter with epilepsy who had to travel out of state for treatment involving cannabis-related medicine. He says he’s recently been researching the 1980 law here, and is open to hearing expert testimony about it from doctors. That said, he feels any legislation to make the DHEC program operable would likely face opposition from certain members of his party, particularly in the Upstate and in the Senate where rules allow one or two members to block movement on any law.

“I think given the social mores that are predominant in South Carolina there is still a pejorative stigma associated with marijuana in South Carolina, and I think it would be difficult to get something like that passed,” Davis says. “I’m fairly certain your Upstate senators are going to object to that bill with their dying breath.”

One of those Upstate Republican senators, though, says he’s also open to discussion.

“By all means, if someone’s dying of cancer I’m for giving them whatever will make them feel comfortable,” says Anderson GOP Sen. Kevin Bryant, a pharmacist. “I would be willing to take a look at the debate.”

Bryant says he does worry about abuse of marijuana should it become more available, but also has issues with the government telling people what they can and can’t do.

For his part, Davis says he wonders why a heavily addictive painkiller like Oxycontin can be obtained with a prescription, but marijuana can’t, even if it can provide relief for pain and suffering.

Rutherford’s effort could be Sisyphean. But even if it gains traction this year, South Carolina might not be the first state in the South to do it. Lawmakers in Alabama and Tennessee are considering legislation; Florida voters will hold a referendum on the issue this year. And regardless of what happens here, activists are content just to have more people talking about marijuana in a different way than in decades past.

Says Borders: “The perception, I think, is changing.”

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