COLUMBIA - A legislative committee created to study what South Carolina needs to do with medical marijuana and how to implement a bill passed this year allowing a very specific use of oil from the plant has plenty of work to do, one of its leaders said Wednesday.
The law also created the medical marijuana committee, which met for the first time. The panel included medical experts, agriculture officials and the chief toxicologist for the State Law Enforcement Division, who said her agency is opposed to allowing hemp or marijuana to be grown in South Carolina.
Sen. Tom Davis, one of the leaders of the committee, said its main goal is to collect information to give to lawmakers to help refine the state's marijuana and hemp laws. He called a bill passed this year a baby step allowing residents with severe epilepsy to use oil derived from marijuana if approved by a doctor. He said he hopes the General Assembly can alter SLED's position.
"Implicit in that is the right to grow and manufacture because it would be nonsensical to legalize possession and use of a substance and not allow it to be created," said Davis, R-Beaufort.
But SLED Chief Toxicologist Wendy Bell said once the door opens a crack to allow legal uses of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the experience in Colorado has shown that it is hard to keep the drug away from people who want to just use it to get high.
"It was very easy to get a medical marijuana card and divert it for recreational use," Bell said.
South Carolina Democrats placed a non-binding question on their primary ballots in June asking if medical marijuana should be legal, and it passed with 81 percent of the vote. The two co-chairs of this committee are Republicans. But in the debate from the limited law passed last session, there was little GOP support for allowing broader medical use of the drug.
Davis wants the committee to meet three more times around the state. Another important item he wants them to take up is whether the state should allow farmers to grow hemp. Hemp comes from the same cannabis plant used to make marijuana, but has a much lower value of the chemical that allows marijuana uses to get high.
Several people at the public meeting urged the state to figure out a way to encourage industrial hemp production. A bill passed this year allows hemp to be grown "for any lawful purpose." But the problem is the federal government doesn't allow it to be grown.
Greg Bayne brought a cooler containing protein powder, breakfast cereal and oil - all made in Canada from hemp - to Wednesday's gathering.
"It's the new super food. Everybody is finding out about it and it is going to be a huge market in the next couple of years. It is a great opportunity for South Carolina farmers," Bayne said.
Committee member Brad Hutto said he doesn't expect to see marijuana legalized in South Carolina, although the Orangeburg attorney noted he sees more lives destroyed by alcohol in his practice than marijuana. Hutto thinks the state should be at the forefront of seeing what legal uses can be found for the cannabis plant.
"It's a plant that has been put on this Earth for a reason," Hutto said. "Whatever the full potential of its medical use is, I would support."
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