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Pro-medical marijuana lobbies spent $95,000-plus in the SC Statehouse

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2018 medical marijuana proposal (copy)

Medical marijuana legislation means a lot of green being spread about in the Statehouse. File/AP

As South Carolina lawmakers begin debate again on medical marijuana in the coming weeks, there's something everyone should know.

Behind every cause there's hired guns.

A check of lobbyists with the State Ethics Commission shows leading supporters of medical pot hired boosters to push their agenda with legislators in 2018.

Billings for three of the groups ran to more than $95,000 — for just the first six months of this year.

They represent Palmetto Medical Cannabis, the Marijuana Policy Council and the S.C. Compassionate Care Alliance.

For some, the work was lucrative.

Palmetto Medical Cannabis disclosures show they paid four lobbyists $72,500 during the first five months of 2018, which coincides with the Statehouse session. 

That's $18,125 each to talk up legislation that died when the clock ran out.

The team includes Billy Boan, an influential former state lawmaker who was the House's chief budget writer, along with lobby veterans Robert Adams, Amber Barnes and Brian Flynn.

Former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles, group spokesman, said PMC involves less then 10 people, most of whom are business-minded South Carolinians interested in the business end of medical marijuana, though he declined to name them.

That includes selling through a pharmacy or dispensary, or testing once medical marijuana becomes legal — something Nettles says is inevitable.

They "wanted to get into that space," said Nettles, who backs medical marijuana as an alternative to the opioid epidemic.

Another group is the Compassionate Care Alliance, which spent a relatively cheap $3,000 on its lobbyist during the first half of the year.

Founder Jill Swing, a single mother of a daughter with epilepsy, said she's been operating mostly on donations to pass the S.C. Compassionate Care Act.

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"We're small but mighty," she said of her effort that began four years ago as a Facebook page. 

Even Washington, D.C.,-based interests want to influence the debate. The nationally focused Marijuana Policy Project spent $19,140 on South Carolina lobbying last session.

None of these groups are required to disclose their donors under state law, though Nettles did say one member of his group is a commercial real estate investor. To connect the dots: marijuana sales will require stores.

"They view it as an opportunity cost," he said.

Legalizing medical marijuana remains controversial. Both State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and Gov. Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general, are on record against it. Some medical circles are making their opposition louder, too. Dr. March Seabrook, president of the S.C. Medical Association, in a letter to the editor said bluntly "marijuana is not a medicine. Any legislation to the contrary is inappropriate."

Seabrook told Palmetto Politics that going forward, "Our membership — 6,000 physicians strong — have begun and will continue to speak directly to legislators to voice their opposition to forcing physicians to be the gateway for marijuana." 

Yet public attitudes are changing. A test referendum during June's S.C. Democratic primary on legalizing medical marijuana passed with 82 percent support. That's backing from 200,000 voters.

A 2016 Winthrop University poll of a cross section of S.C. residents drew similar results: 78 percent supported it.

Advocates say medical marijuana helps patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, appetite loss, cancer, glaucoma, muscle afflictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and other afflictions.

Meanwhile, the alternative of hemp farming is growing, too, with the number of S.C. farmers approved doubling from 20 to 40. It's a different category than street pot since the weed isn't used for the "high" that comes with reefer.

It's grown for clothing material or cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive oil that’s used to treat a variety of ailments, from anxiety to arthritis to epileptic seizures. State legislators legalized the extract in 2014.

Former state Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston said his first crop, grown on 16 acres in Aiken County, is being turned into the oil. He expects to break even in his first year.

Where the medical marijuana debate goes is anybody's guess. State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, once again will lead the legalization charge with his Compassionate Care Act on the Jan. 8 first day of session.

All this means: Interest in medical marijuana is about to take off.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

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