Is 2019 the Year For Medical Cannabis in South Carolina? Maybe.

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As the mother of a child with cerebral palsy and epilepsy in Charleston, Jill Swing has lobbied the South Carolina legislature since 2014 for a medical cannabis law that would help her more easily obtain remedies to alleviate her daughter’s symptoms. Her daughter, Mary Louise, just turned eleven. “This is half of her life we’ve been fighting for this medication,” Swing said.

She also believes that her quest will end this coming year—though not without a fight. Swing and others say that momentum from the last legislative session, new allies in the business community, and a focus on the state from Marijuana Policy Project, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, could make the difference in South Carolina’s statehouse in passing the state’s first medical cannabis bill. This despite Republican control of all three branches of state government and the opposition of the state’s governor.

Marijuana Policy Project and a new business group, called Palmetto Medical Cannabis, have six listed lobbyists in the statehouse between them, according to lobbying disclosures, and more are expected during the state’s 2019 session. They include lobbyists from the powerhouse law and lobbying firms Nelson Mullins and McGuireWoods, which both have offices in the state capital of Columbia.  

Swing, who founded a group focused on educating the public on medical cannabis called the S.C. Compassionate Care Alliance, told Cannabis Wire that, after three years of organizing parents of sick children, she is glad to have the help of professional lobbyists whose clients also include powerful corporate interests, including Dominion Energy and Uber.

“Next year is going to be our year — 2019 is going to be it,” Swing told Cannabis Wire.

But medical cannabis proponents face a large hurdle. Standing in the path of a medical cannabis law, Swing and others said, is Mark Keel, Chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and other prominent law enforcement authorities. Chief Keel has been a mainstay in the statehouse for years, nominated to the state police post by two successive governors, Nikki Haley and Henry McMaster. Before that, Keel was known to lawmakers as the head of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. His advice is often sought on a variety of law enforcement issues, and he regularly weighs in on legislation.

Scott Huffmon, who conducts statewide polls on public policy as a political science professor at Winthrop University, said Keel’s influence comes from the nature of his position as the state’s most prominent law enforcement officer, one who has a consistent presence in the statehouse. Lawmakers, Huffmon told Cannabis Wire, “are still thinking of the War on Drugs and they’re deferring to the chief law enforcement officer of the state. As long as it’s framed as a crime issue they’re going to listen to somebody’s expertise who is in crime.”

If lawmakers begin to see the issue as more of a health problem than a crime problem, they would likely rely more heavily on other experts, Huffmon added.

Keel has pointed to a number of concerns about legalizing medical cannabis in the state, saying that if and when the Food and Drug Administration conducts the same rigorous testing and oversight for cannabis as the agency does for other drugs, law enforcement will drop its opposition.

“We’re just saying ‘let’s wait,’” Keel said in a 2017 interview on PBS. “Let’s let the studies be done, the blind testing be done, and there may be compounds that are beneficial.” As it stands, medical cannabis, Keel contends, is, “a street level drug that has been determined by the DEA to have no medical value.”

Keel also uses Arizona’s medical cannabis program as an example of how it can be subject to abuse. In the PBS interview, Keel said, incorrectly, that “90-plus percent” of medical card holders in Arizona were between eighteen and thirty-five years old. In fact, that number is closer to 45 percent, and of those between eighteen and forty, according to the state’s public health department. That number hasn’t changed significantly since the state started to keep track in 2011.  

Youth usage rates of cannabis going up are also a big concern for South Carolina law enforcement. There, the evidence is mixed. A 2017 study in the Journal for Primary Prevention found that in Oregon, “although adolescents rarely obtain marijuana directly from medical dispensaries, the legalization of medical marijuana may nonetheless affect adolescents’ use by increasing its availability through diversion from social sources, by fostering social norms that are favorable to marijuana use, or by reinforcing beliefs that marijuana use is not harmful.”

A recent Drug Policy Alliance study found, however, that national youth use rates haven’t increased dramatically despite the increasing number of states that have legalized cannabis for both adult-use and medical purposes.  

The longer law enforcement waits,” Nettles said, the less leverage Keel and others will have. “If they wait too long, we’re not going to need their input.

In the PBS interview, Keel said it will be harder for parents and law enforcement to make the case against cannabis for young people if the state legalized for medical purposes. “Any time the government endorses something, people feel like, ‘Well the government has endorsed it, it must be OK,’” he said.

Swing strongly disagrees. “I question who they think they’re serving and protecting,” she said. What Keel is saying, as Swing hears it, is, “‘I’m concerned about the children, but not about the children who need access to this medicine,’” she said, adding, “I almost find that offensive.”

Keel holds sway with many lawmakers, including Governor Henry McMaster, who has said that he won’t support the legalization of medical cannabis without law enforcement support. “Now, when law enforcement is satisfied that it can be controlled, then that’s a different story,” McMaster said in a gubernatorial debate, according to the Columbia, South Carolina Free-Times.

“If it wasn’t for Mark Keel, this bill would have already passed,” Swing told Cannabis Wire. “People just bow down to Mark Keel.”

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry said in an email to Cannabis Wire that Keel was not available for an interview and “will address any concerns on proposed legislation with members of the S.C. General Assembly based upon a review of the specifics of any bill that is filed and under consideration.”

One medical cannabis proponent, Bill Nettles, a former US Attorney in South Carolina who was appointed by President Obama, has worked with Keel, and would be happy to do so again on the medical cannabis issue. He said the chief’s mindset is one born of years of police officers being asked by legislatures and the federal government to enforce America’s War on Drugs. “You can’t ask someone who has spent that much of their life believing in their heart of hearts they’re doing the right thing to just change.”

Nettles is now CEO of Palmetto Medical Cannabis, a group of more than a dozen business people who want to enter the industry. He declined to say who specifically was involved.

Nettles argues that public opinion—a 2016 Winthrop University poll of 694 residents found 78 percent support for medical cannabis — puts law enforcement on the wrong side of the issue. Republicans Tom Davis in the Senate and Peter McCoy in the House, who authored the primary bills for legalizing medical cannabis last year, are expected to file new legislation this year, Swing said. (Both lawmakers did not return Cannabis Wire’s phone calls seeking comment.)

Nettles also contends that the proposals could move forward over law enforcement’s objections. Last year, medical cannabis bills passed committee votes for the first time in the House and the Senate, but were never brought up for a full vote on either chamber’s floor.

“The longer law enforcement waits,” Nettles said, the less leverage Keel and others will have. “If they wait too long, we’re not going to need their input.” He said pro-medical cannabis forces are  willing to make concessions on a law enforcement-friendly bill. Those could include stiffer penalties for people who aren’t using cannabis within the bounds of the program or who violate packaging requirements.

Whether Keel participates or gives his blessing to any proposal is the “$64,000 question right now,” said Chris Lindsey, who is heading up efforts in the state for the Marijuana Policy Project.  “The question is, are lawmakers going to really be listening to their constituents, or are they more inclined to follow the lead of law enforcement?”

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