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Medical marijuana steps away from legalization in South Carolina

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina is on the calendar for debate at the state House.

But as we enter the last week of the legislative session, there’s still a question as to whether the discussion around the Compassionate Care Act will take place this year or next.

State Sen. Tom Davis, who represents Beaufort and Jasper counties, has been working on a bill to legalize medical marijuana since 2015.

“My job is to come up with a bill that empowers doctors and puts medicine in their hands to help their patients,” Davis says.

Over the years, dozens of other states have passed similar bills and Davis says he’s learned from their mistakes.

“South Carolinians do not want to legalize it for recreational purposes,” Davis says. “So the answer to those people who say it’s a slippery slope, I would say, a state’s laws are reflective of what their people want.”

Out of all of the other states’ bills, South Carolina’s is the most conservative, he says. In fact, it lists out the debilitating medical conditions that could qualify.

“We don’t have the list of conditions so broad to where anybody can walk into a doctor’s office and get an authorization to take cannabis,” Davis says.

Those conditions include cancer, multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease or disorder including epilepsy, glaucoma, and PTSD with confirmation that someone has experienced a traumatic event.

Davis also says it’s going to be tightly regulated.

“You only have a specific number of authorized growers - a very finite amount,” Davis says. “A specific number of individuals or entities that can process it. A specific number of dispensaries and we want to limit the number of these establishments because I don’t want the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the State Law Enforcement Division and other regulators to be overwhelmed.”

Many might not know – cannabis is already approved to grow in South Carolina. One farm that does is Nature’s Highway Farm in Neeses – just west of Orangeburg. They’re one of hundreds in the Palmetto State that have a permit to grow cannabis – but only plants that contain less than 0.3 percent of THC – which is classified as Hemp.

Andy Fogle says they have hundreds of plants they keep trimming and replicating as part of their hemp-growing process.

“If we allow them to bud, then we’ve lost that genetics, so we have to keep that stuff,” Fogle says.

They have thousands of replication plants that they are waiting on to root and then they will plant those in the field come June.

When it comes to the extraction of the hemp, that goes to another Nature’s Highway facility. They dry the flower and combine it with frozen food-grade alcohol. It’s essentially like a washing machine which washes the oil out of the plant. From there it goes through filters and ultimately ends up in the evaporation room where they separate the oil from the alcohol.

“We’re pumping CBD oil and ethanol that’s mixed together,” Fogle says. “It’s heated up. What’s happening is the ethanol, or alcohol, is evaporating. It’s going up a column as a vapor. In this coil is a chiller and you’ll the see ethanol, or alcohol, is coming back out. Once we get out all the ethanol, there will be nothing but CBD oil left.”

Fogle explains if medical marijuana were to be legalized, this entire process would stay the same. They would just be dealing with a different strain of cannabis.

While Fogle says they would definitely be interested in pursuing a permit to grow medical marijuana, if it’s legalized, Davis reiterates he wants to start out slow.

“I think ultimately what you’ll end up with is maybe between 15 to 30, growers, approximately that number of processors, more dispensers because it’s a broader portion of the state you have to cover there,” Davis says. “It’s going to take a while for DHEC and SLED to become accustomed to this and how they properly regulate and oversee the growing, processing and dispensing.”

DHEC released the following statement on the possible legalization of medical marijuana:

DHEC is charged with implementing the laws made by the state legislature as they pertain to the agency. DHEC is aware of bills that have been introduced that address medical marijuana and has been following the issue. DHEC also has not prepared to implement the bills at this time since legislation has not passed. If any bills are made into law, DHEC will carry out its obligation to implement the law, including any requirements placed on the agency related to applications and licensing.

Davis says the argument against legalization because the federal government has banned or outlawed it isn’t exactly true.

“If you look what Congress has done every single year, the past several years, whenever they pass their annual budget they have a proviso in that budget with the appropriation to the Department of Justice saying none of the money that we’re appropriating to you, Department of Justice, can be used to challenge or attack or undermine laws in states that have authorized the medical use of cannabis,” he says. “So, you’ve got Congress every year saying to the states this is something that’s okay for you to do. You’ve also seen that in the Executive Branch and the Department of Justice. There are written directives to U.S. attorneys throughout the country saying, ‘Do not challenge states that have passed medical cannabis laws.’ And finally, you have the courts, the Judicial Branch, which has repeatedly held that authorizing it for medicinal use is within a state’s power.”

As it stands right now, the Compassionate Care Act has been voted out of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee and is on the calendar to be discussed on the Senate floor.

Davis says he has the votes to get it passed, it’s just a matter of when it’s going to be discussed.

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