As far as Indian Land mom and activist Michelle Simonetti is concerned, it’s high time that South Carolina legalize medical marijuana.
Too many people are suffering without it needlessly, she said.
It’s not about getting high, Simonetti noted. It’s all about getting well.
“I want people to see it as a medical issue,” she said.
And a lack of legal medical marijuana also is too often turning desperate patients or their caregivers into criminals, she lamented.
Anecdotes abound of S.C. residents forced to either flee to pot-friendly states or else purchase the illicit herb here from drug dealers rather than through their doctors and a state-run apparatus that ensures the drug is safe and systematically monitored — “from seed to sale” — free of pesticides and other toxins that could undermine its supposed medicinal effects.
“I’ve gotten involved in this because I see (marijuana) as a true medical benefit,” said Simonetti, 38, who works in the electronic medical records field, holds a degree in neuroscience and acts as regional outreach director for the medical-marijuana advocacy group CompassionateSC.
“People aren’t really educated to understand (the issue),” she added. “I hear people speaking about it and they don’t have a medical background. And a lot of the families who are dealing with (sick) children just don’t have the ability to get out and advocate about it.”
Public education is key, she said. And once educated, she added, those people need to rise up and contact their state legislators to demand action.
First in the nation
Ironically, in 1980 South Carolina became the first state in the nation to approve medical marijuana, under a law titled the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act.
Among its provisions, it allowed the director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to distribute medical marijuana to treat certain illnesses.
The program the law created, however, was never funded or implemented, thanks to a caveat that would prove fatal almost immediately upon passage.
The law said DHEC could obtain and distribute marijuana only through means consistent with federal law – and federal law to this day still classifies marijuana as a dangerous and illegal Schedule1 narcotic, on par with such hard drugs as heroin, LSD and cocaine.
Since then, while Simonetti said countless South Carolinians continue to suffer from a wide array of ailments that marijuana could either treat or alleviate or perhaps even cure, state after state has passed its own medical-pot laws.
In fact, 56 percent of voters in conservative, red-state Oklahoma just this week voted by referendum to become the 30th state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Oklahoma’s law also would be unique. It would become the first state to initiate a medical-marijuana program without listing specific ailments for which doctors could authorize marijuana for their patients.
Of those states with medical marijuana, more than a half dozen also have since expanded their laws allowing pot for recreational use.
And therein lies the rub for proponents of medical marijuana in South Carolina.
Though a bipartisan bill called the Compassionate Care Act made great headway toward passage this past legislative session, the highest levels of the state’s law enforcement establishment continue to stand in the way, despite amendments that would have made the proposed law among the nation’s most restrictive, said Simonetti.
Under the amended bill, patients would not be allowed smokable marijuana, unlike other states. It also would have allowed patients to get a prescription only from doctors they had an ongoing “bona-fide relation” with.
And, among the proposed law’s other restrictive rules, the drug could be prescribed only for a set list of ailments and diseases: cancer, multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease or disorder, sickle cell anemia, glaucoma, PTSD, a condition causing a person to be home-bound that includes severe or persistent nausea, or a chronic medical condition causing either severe and persistent muscle spasms or for which an opioid is currently or could be prescribed by a physician.
The bill’s opposition – led by Chief Mark Keel of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division – has remained steadfast, even as a slew of polls in recent months and years indicate a majority of the state’s residents support medical marijuana.
And earlier this month, in a non-binding advisory question on the June 12 Democratic primary ballot, 82 percent of state voters approved of allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to their patients.
Still, many critics contend legalizing medical marijuana is just another major step on the road to legalized recreational use.
They point to the fact the state in 2014 made hemp farming legal as well as cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is now available by prescription for treating certain forms of epilepsy.
Such oil, under S.C. law, may contain up to 0.9 percent THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid that produces marijuana’s high – though it has that effect only at exponentially higher levels than the state’s CBD oil law allows.
Hemp, which is not marijuana but comes from the cannabis-family of plants, contains virtually no THC, but has thousands of industrial uses from food and fuel to clothing and construction.
“I think we can get a version of the Compassionate Care Act passed if we can only get law enforcement on board,” said Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, a co-sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act.
“I think there is some room to do that because the officials I have spoken with understand the benefits of it as medicine, particularly for seizure disorders,” she said. “Their concern is preventing recreational use. That’s my concern as well. And there are mechanisms in the act to prevent that.”
However, according to Keel and the state’s sheriffs – including Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile – federal law simply prevents South Carolina from legalizing medicinal weed. Period.
“We could debate the pros and cons of legalizing ‘medical’ marijuana all day,” wrote Sheriff Faile in a recent letter to the state’s newspaper editors. “In the end, however, no decision the South Carolina General Assembly makes will change the fact that marijuana remains federally illegal throughout the United States. In other words, the fact that marijuana is illegal is the ‘supreme law of the land’ in our country.
“So, while the Sheriffs of South Carolina have extreme compassion for those who are suffering from debilitating illnesses, we cannot endorse or even ignore the attempt to provide relief through illegal methods,” Faile added.
“If cannabis has medicinal benefits,” he continued, “it should be treated and regulated in the same manner as all other medicine is in the United States, which is through legitimate research and oversight by the Federal (sic) Drug Administration. To date, however, the FDA has found no medicinal value to cannabis.”
Faile’s assertion, however, would now appear to be outdated.
On Monday, June 25, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first time ever approved a cannabis-based drug, Epidiolex, made with non-THC cannabidiol, which has been proven effective by the agency for treating at least two forms of severe epilepsy that develops in early childhood.
“This is an important medical advance,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement Monday.
“Because of the adequate and well-controlled clinical studies that supported this approval, prescribers can have confidence in the drug’s uniform strength and consistent delivery,” Gottlieb added.
Prior to Monday’s announcement, which Epidiolex’s drugmaker hailed as “a historic milestone,” the FDA in the recent past had also approved synthetic versions of some cannabinoid chemicals found in the marijuana plant for other purposes, including cancer pain relief.
“I think (S.C. medical marijuana legalization) will finally happen in 2019,” Simonetti said.
The reason why is simple. Cannabis therapy (with or without illicit THC) can transform lives, she said — and she need only point to herself and a number of her family members to prove it.