The first regular session of the 121st South Carolina General Assembly will convene on Tuesday, January 13, 2015, at which point, the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Study Committee has until March 15, 2015, to provide a report to the General Assembly.
The committee’s report “must address, at a minimum, methods and procedures for cultivating medical marijuana in the State, the amount of tax to impose on the sale of medical marijuana, the need for an agricultural marketing plan for the sale and use of medical marijuana, and the impact of the sale and use of medical marijuana on public health and wellness.”
Over the past several months, the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Study Committee has held four meetings open to public testimony. Thursday, December 4, 2014, was the final meeting that was open for members of the public to address the committee. The meeting, held in Florence, South Carolina, furthered the dialogue on Senate Bill 839, the legalization of industrial hemp, and Senate Bill 1035, the legalization of CBD oil, a non-psychoactive therapeutic compound found in cannabis, for patients with certain forms of epilepsy.
Members of the committee demonstrated due diligence during the proceedings, and it should reassure South Carolinians that the members of this committee are legitimately interested in doing what is best for the state and its citizens.
Law Enforcement: Too Little, Too Late
In what is typically a red state, South Carolina’s Medical Marijuana Study Committee represents bipartisan interests. Committee members include Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort; Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester; Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; Mrs. Jill Swing, public member; Dr. Wendy Bell, chief toxicologist for South Carolina Law Enforcement Division; Mr. Meredith Cleland, representing the Department of Revenue; Dr. David Cole, President of the Medical University of South Carolina; Rep. John Richard C. King, D-York; Mrs. Morgan Mobley, public member; Dr. Kathy Coleman, representing Clemson University; Mr. Clint Leach, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Agriculture; Dr. Tim Pearce, President of the South Carolina Medical Assocation; and Mr. Jonathan Yarborough, Legislative and Constituent Services Director for Department of Health & Environmental Control.
Beyond political affiliation, it is important to note that each member has a different yet necessary perspective on the issue of medical marijuana, and was assigned the duty of allowing that perspective to be informed by public testimony.
John McDaniel, a medical marijuana advocate, addressed the committee in Florence and said, “This is the third time I’ve come to one of these, I’ve yet to see someone rise in opposition to safe and legal access to cannabis. Has anyone risen in opposition?”
“Not at our committee meetings,” Davis answered.
That same day, South Carolina’s four primary law-enforcement agencies—SC Sheriffs’ Association, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, SC Police Chiefs Association, South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers’ Association—sent a letter, full of apparent misinformation, to the members of the Medical Marijuana Study Committee requesting that South Carolina not legalize any form of marijuana until the federal government grants its approval.
“When law enforcement officials make statements that are in error, which I believe they have in this letter, it is important for me to say so,” Davis stated, not the committee. Then, Davis, dismantled the arguments made in the opposition’s letter.
It is unfortunate that none of the letter’s signatories actually took the opportunity to speak against marijuana at any of the meetings, as that would have demonstrated their sincere effort to work with the committee on formulating the best course of action for the state.
To the benefit of the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Study Committee, several people actively participated in this most recent meeting. The committee was able to hear the testimony of patients, growers, advocates and caregivers from across the country. This allowed the committee access to an understanding of how medical marijuana programs work in other states, and which elements of those programs will be most beneficial for South Carolinians.
Don Jacobs, a former forester and medical marijuana patient from Oregon, gave the committee an overview of Oregon’s medical marijuana program. In Oregon, Jacobs is licensed to grow up to 12 plants for his own medical use.
Jacobs cautioned the committee, “If you allow large companies to take over the production of medical marijuana, that’s going to be a crime in itself. I think that patients should be able to grow their own medical marijuana.” This is a sentiment that has been echoed in other states.
It may be that Oregon is one option on which South Carolina can model its medical marijuana program; however, Andrew McIntyre, a caregiver from Maine, highlighted the benefits of his state’s program, including the state’s 36 plant limit per caregiver:
“The Maine medical marijuana program is the best in the country, hands down. It’s one of the things I’m really proud of being involved with [in] Maine. … the restrictions that I have as a grower are very specific and some of the growers that I give lectures to they hate it, but I actually love it because if you look at every one of our laws they actually mirror the federal laws so that the federal government does not have to get involved in Maine.”
It seems, at least for the next fiscal year, that states with existing medical marijuana laws may not have to worry about federal interference at all. On December 13, 2014, Congress passed the cromnibus bill, which includes an amendment that prevents the Department of Justice from “arresting or prosecuting anyone who sells or uses medical marijuana in the 32 states that currently have some type of medical pot law on the books,” according to VICE News. On December 16, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Beyond testimony on other current medical marijuana programs, the committee also heard about those with medical need for access to therapeutic marijuana. Janel Ralph’s 5-year-old daughter Harmony suffers from lissencephaly, a rare brain formation also known as “smooth brain” that is accompanied by seizures.
Ralph was able to start Harmony on a CBD-oil treatment regimen back in October and she showed the committee a video documenting Harmony’s progress. “That’s the first time I’ve heard my daughter laugh in two and a half years,” Ralph said. The video can be viewed on Sen. Tom Davis’s Facebook page in a post from December, 5 2014.
Ralph explained, “After finally being able to access cannabis oil high in CBD, I watched my child wake up after a two year long drug-induced coma. I saw Harmony who is suffering from daily multiple life-threatening seizures go 12 whole days seizure free … something that the pharmaceutical community has not been able to do for my child.”
“Please don’t over think this and regulate it so much that no one gets safe affordable medicine,” Ralph concluded.
Ken Locke, a former tree cutter whose skull was impaled by a tree limb while on the job in 2001, explained how his accident forced him to go through “two years of learning how to re-walk, and run, try to keep the shakes down,” in addition to suffering 62 grand mal seizures since the accident.
Locke was “put on many many pharmaceutical prescribed medicines, which basically ruined [his] life.” After doing intensive research, Locke “dumped the medicines in the toilet. [He] went on a regimented daily use of cannabis for [himself]; after, finding [he] was having no more seizures.”
In case the committee didn’t grasp the severity of grand mal seizures, Locke explained, “Seizures are a terrible feeling. If you’ve never had a seizure, pray that you never do have one. And if you do have one, research cannabis.”
Entrepreneurs & Farmers
The purpose of medical marijuana is to help those who are suffering, but within that it should also enable a market that can benefit patients without burdening them.
John McDaniel, a medical marijuana advocate, proposed the revised bill include the following language: “The state recognizes that patients must be afforded the ability to grow, buy, sell and process, with the required and proper license, medical cannabis in the state of South Carolina for profit.”
This past fall, MJINews estimated the current market size for U.S. marijuana revenue by state, with South Carolina’s estimated legal market to be almost $1 million. This estimate accounts for full medical marijuana, not just CBD oil, as well as recreational marijuana. It seems only fair for the actual patients to be able to profit from the state’s medical marijuana market.
In order to allow these patients, as well as farmers trying to reinvent themselves, to grow medical marijuana for profit, it might be necessary to limit the cost of application and licensing fees. For instance, Illinois had a nonrefundable $25,000 application fee for cultivators interested in growing for the state’s medical marijuana program. Minnesota had a $20,000 nonrefundable application fee to grow and sell for the state.
For seasoned investors, these types of fees are insignificant; however, small businesses, patients and farmers may not be able afford the risk of a nonrefundable application fee. For patients, a caregiver model, such as Maine’s, is worth exploring for the benefit of South Carolina, while larger scale CBD oil operations may justify the need for higher application fees so the state can fund the proper infrastructure.
Maison Harley, an advocate from Aiken, South Carolina, told the committee that “high dollar amounts for licensing and limiting farms help absolutely no one … . Do not license our farmers out of a job.”
Besides making cultivation economically possible for patients and farmers, multiple speakers expressed the importance of protecting farmers who choose to cultivate industrial hemp and medical marijuana.
Bill Polyniak, one of the first six licensing recipients to legally cultivate hemp in the state of Kentucky under the federal Farm Bill, spoke with the committee regarding his experience as a cultivator of high-CBD hemp. In addition to explaining Kentucky’s program, Polyniak also stressed the importance of protecting hemp cultivators:
“If we get into this legislation, I think it’d be beneficial, instead of how are we going to clamp down on the farmer, how are we going to protect the farmer with this hemp crop? How is the law enforcement going to crack down on those that are stealing from the farmer? How are they going to crack down on those who are selling bad product? What’s the agricultural process much like they do for tomatoes and other produce to certify that this is a quality product?”
Within that same vein, Andrew McIntyre, the caregiver from Maine, asked the committee to rethink Section 46-55-40 in the industrial hemp bill because it states that if marijuana is found on “property used for industrial hemp production,” the industrial hemp cultivator is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be imprisoned not more than three years or fined not more than three thousand dollars, or both.”
To illustrate his point, McIntyre compared it to other agricultural contracts: “In your corn contract from the department of agriculture … you’re not going to go away to jail for three years if some kid plants a marijuana plant in your field that you don’t know about.”
On the federal level, the 2014 Farm Bill contained a provision that removed hemp, cannabis containing .3% or less THC, from the Controlled Substances Act. With this in mind, farmers shouldn’t fear growing industrial hemp; however, it’s hard to remember a time when we weren’t inundated with marijuana-related propaganda.
Polyniak reminded the committee, “In 1942 we taught kids in 4-H how to farm hemp so what a long way we’ve come where today I had my kid hanging hemp … and people almost look at me like I’m some bad person because my kid’s hanging hemp, but in ‘42 and ‘43 we taught these kids how to grow hemp as a war effort.”
Hemp has a rich history and it has an even richer potential for American farmers. After the meeting ended, Polyniak spoke with MJINews. He commented that the biggest challenge for farmers contemplating hemp cultivation is “getting over the stigma. This invisible line that somehow hemp is bad, once they break that barrier that it’s no different than any other crop, I don’t think they’ll have any problems.”
As previously noted, on December 16, 2014, President Obama signed the federal spending bill. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the bill “includes an amendment that prohibits the U.S. Justice Department from spending any money to undermine state medical marijuana laws.” The bill also prevents the DEA from blocking the farm bill’s hemp provision.
The federal spending bill should reassure South Carolinians, as it removes one of the major risks associated with a state undertaking medical marijuana and industrial hemp—federal interference.
As for the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Committee Study, December 4 was the final meeting open to public testimony. According to Sen. Tom Davis, co-chair of the committee, the committee will meet one more time, open for the public to attend, “in Columbia sometime between now and when we go into session” where members of the committee will discuss “findings to give back to the General Assembly as a result of these hearings.”
According to The Sun News, Davis plans to introduce a separate bill later in the session “to expand CBD oil’s medicinal uses to include treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, autism, glaucoma and chronic pain.”
For advocates of legalization, the passage of a CBD oil bill in South Carolina may not seem like much of a victory; however, such legislation should create a positive domino effect so that members of the General Assembly will be more apt to consider a complete medical marijuana program that allows higher therapeutic levels of THC, as the synergy of CBD and THC are recommended for specific treatment regimens.
Rep. Todd Rutherford’s “Put Patients First Act,” an act establishing a medical marijuana program for the state, was prefiled and referred to the Judiciary Committee on December 11, 2014. Rutherford had previously filed this bill for the 120th South Carolina General Assembly, but the bill died because it did not make it to the Senate before the crossover deadline.
In the meantime, advocates of legalization should look forward to the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Study Committee’s recommendations, as they will set the precedent for patients seeking CBD oil.