A state Senate panel spent much of Wednesday listening to the testimony of medical experts, who expressed support and concerns for a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina.
It was the second of several hearings expected to take place in the coming months that are exploring a way for the Palmetto State to legalize the use of pot in a medical setting. Supporters say the plant’s chemicals could help those who suffer from chronic pain and other quality-of-life-damaging illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than a dozen speakers addressed the Senate panel during a marathon hearing that ran for nearly five hours. The majority advocated legalization of the plant for medicinal use, with many arguing it could help those being treated for chronic pain be weaned off opioids and other dangerous narcotics.
Among those who spoke was Uma Dhanabalan, a Massachusetts-based physician who has become a cannabis therapeutic specialist in recent years. She said she has not written a prescription for an opioid in more than eight years. Instead, she said she gets patients off narcotics.
“Cannabis is not an entrance drug – it’s an exit drug from pharmaceuticals and narcotics,” Dhanabalan said. “Further studies do need to be done, but I do believe it should be a first-line option.”
Dhanabalan listed several ways studies have found medical marijuana has affected patients by helping them curb alcohol consumption, lose weight and spend less on prescription medications. She said “cannabis is not for everybody,” but argued that those in need should have access to it.
Physicians in states where medical marijuana is legal cannot write a prescription. But they can write a recommendation to be used at registered marijuana dispensaries.
Though the majority of speakers echoed Dhanabalan, a handful voiced concerns with the regulatory aspect of the legalization of medical pot.
J. Addison Livingston, a pharmacist and member of the S.C. Board of Pharmacy, said the proposed law creates a system “that is outside of normal practice.” He said the board is concerned about the bill moving forward without further research.
Livingston said he remembers a time when the use of opioids was advocated for, resulting in “unintended consequences.” He said there has not been enough analyzed evidence by the FDA to show the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh the risks.
“We do not need another situation like the opioid epidemic that we’re battling right now,” Livingston said.
The bill’s main author, libertarian Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, noted, however, the majority of the speakers kept repeating each other in saying that “cannabis is medicine.”
Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, voiced the strongest concern of legislators on the panel, stressing he was mainly worried about preventing medical marijuana from falling into the hands of those who would abuse it.
“I have no concern that there is benefit and that it provides relief to people,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure that if we pass a bill … that that’s who gets it.”
The panel ended the hearing without taking any action on the bill. It was the second meeting with no action.
A House panel already advanced in February a bill that also seeks to legalize medical pot over the opposition of members from the state’s law enforcement community, including State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. Though Keel attended the Wednesday Senate hearing, he was not called on by legislators to speak.
Issues raised Wednesday
Pharmacists cannot dispense marijuana. Even if the state legalizes it for medicinal purposes, it is still prohibited through federal law. Registered dispensaries would be needed.
Not enough studies conducted. Some have shown that teens who use marijuana are more likely to develop an addiction, while others have not shown that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Diversion. For the most part, legislators did not dispute medical pot’s potential benefits but worried about keeping it away from potential abusers and addicts.