Senators push legalizing medical marijuana over SLED chief’s objections

Jayden Kozack, 11, and his sister Sophia, 7, pose for a picture with Ryan Riffle, of Chapin, at a rally earlier this year supporting legalizing medical marijuana. An extract of marijuana has helped reduce Sophia’s seizures.

COLUMBIA — A bill that would decriminalize medical marijuana cleared a Senate panel on Thursday over the objections of law enforcement officials who claimed it would essentially legalize recreational drug use.

For nearly two hours, five senators on the Senate’s Medical Affairs Subcommittee listened to arguments against the law, which would allow for doctors to recommend marijuana as an alternative for those who suffer from chronic diseases such as cancer, glaucoma or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill has to clear the full committee by January to be ready for discussion by the start of the legislative session.

Sens. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, at times, became visibly frustrated as law enforcement officials listed the drug’s potential negative impact, instead of suggesting ways to strengthen the bill to address potential abuse by recreational marijuana users.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel cited statistics and studies done in other states where recreational and medical marijuana is used, and argued that medical marijuana makes it easier for others to obtain pot because law enforcement can’t control it once it’s in the hands of the intended user.

“This bill makes it impossible for anybody to be prosecuted,” warned Keel, adding that lawyers would find loopholes to get those who skirt the law off without penalties.

Keel also argued that having doctors and licensed dispensaries control the distribution and sale of marijuana creates a “pill-mill” type of environment. Pill mills were pain management centers that became popular in Florida in the late 2000s where clinics were connected to pharmacies, allowing unscrupulous doctors to directly profit from prescribing large amounts of pain medication to addicts by keeping the whole process in-house.

But Davis — whose 49-year-old sister has stage 3 ovarian cancer and could benefit from medical marijuana for pain relief — argued that law enforcement officials were too busy worrying about the cons of the drug, instead of considering its benefits. He added that under the premise law enforcement officials were presenting, South Carolina should ban alcohol.

Last year, Davis championed the passing of legislation that decriminalized the use of CBD oil, a marijuana extract that has helped control severe epilepsy sufferers’ life-threatening seizures. Davis said decriminalizing medical marijuana is an expansion on the CBD oil effort. While legal, CBD is not widely available in South Carolina, and it is still illegal to produce it in the state.

“This is an extremely tight, conservative small step forward in regard to getting something that is giving relief into the hands of the people who need it,” Davis said. “Yet, we have this 1960s, 1970s reefer madness mentality that somehow our public school system is going to collapse, capital investments will dry up, and all sorts of parades of horrors will happen if we allow medicine to be put in the hands of the people who need it. To me that’s just not persuasive.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and recreational use is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and the nation’s capital. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, challenging federal drug laws that still make even medical uses illegal.

However, the Justice Department under the Obama administraton has declined to prosecute medical marijuana and, more recently, recreational marijuana use in states where voters have legalized one or both as long as state laws are being followed.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at (843) 577-7111.