- Associated Press - Thursday, September 24, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A Senate panel advanced Thursday a bill legalizing marijuana in South Carolina for patients suffering from an array of ailments recognized by a doctor.

The bill’s bi-partisan co-sponsors said its limited purpose is to allow law-abiding residents to benefit from a plant that could relieve their symptoms or pain. It would allow qualified patients and care-givers to possess limited amounts of marijuana purchased through a seed-to-sale tracking system.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control would be responsible for licensing marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries.

“Nobody’s talking about recreational use. We’re not even talking about liberal medical uses,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, describing his bill as taking a “cautious and tentative step” in the conservative state.

A 5-0 vote sent the bill to the full Medical Affairs Committee, which won’t meet until the Legislature returns in January.

Senators signaled their approval from the meeting’s outset, telling law enforcement officials who packed the room their opposition was unhelpful without specific suggestions for ensuring the bill’s language reflected the intent.

Help “make this a better bill,” Davis said, “because this bill is moving forward.”

Advocates didn’t get a chance to speak Thursday, but the meeting followed earlier testimony from patients and their parents.

“It’s just wrong for parents in South Carolina to have to leave this state to seek treatment for their child because we have a law on the books that prevents them from getting the treatment they deserve,” said co-sponsoring Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Marijuana use is illegal under federal law. Regardless, four states allow its use recreationally.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive medical marijuana programs. South Carolina is among 17 additional states allowing limited uses of non-psychoactive cannabidiol, known as CBD oil, derived from marijuana.

The law South Carolina passed last year, also sponsored by Davis, legalized the oil’s use only for people suffering from severe epilepsy. The advancing legislation broadens legal use of marijuana and CBD oil to a wide range of medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This puts South Carolina in the position of approving a crude street drug to treat almost anything,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who called the bill one of the worst he’s seen in his four decades in law enforcement.

Other opponents included the South Carolina Baptist Convention and Crime Victims’ Council.

Opponents said the state shouldn’t legalize marijuana as medicine until research documents the benefits and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves its use. The bill essentially condones a return to the days of snake oil salesmen hocking cure-all elixirs, Keel said.

“Just because it was created by God and put on this earth doesn’t mean it’s safe for human consumption,” he said.

He argued healthy residents and “pill mill” doctors would find a way to abuse the law and that the state’s condoning of the drug would increase illegal use of marijuana among youth.

Hutto countered it’s foolish to think the current ban is preventing consumption of marijuana.

“There’s no limit now to what a high school kid wants to buy. His only limit is his pocketbook,” he said. “But there’s no reason to make criminals out of people who are hard-working South Carolinians who want relief.”

The back-and-forth between opponents and senators got heated at times.

Afterward, Davis said it enrages him when opponents say patients’ testimony is heart-wrenching but only anecdotal. He said he’s convinced by the dozens of people he’s heard from, but the issue is also personal. His 49-year-old sister, who lives in California, has stage three ovarian cancer. He’s resentful of any law that would prevent her from getting the help she needs, he said.

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