Did you realize that only 38 percent of Americans now live in a state where seriously ill patients are considered criminals if they use medical cannabis, even if their doctors say it is the only thing that can provide relief? Unfortunately, that includes all the residents of South Carolina.
State Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) and I are trying to change that. Earlier this year, we introduced the S.C. Compassionate Care Act to create a highly regulated program that would allow patients with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s written recommendation to access medical cannabis from state-licensed facilities. Among others, the qualifying conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, autism, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, epileptic seizures, and neurological disorders.
In our bill, a limited number of licenses would be issued by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to growers, processors, dispensaries, and independent-testing laboratories, and a seed-to-sale tracking system would be put into place so state regulators would know, in real time, where the product was at all stages. Cannabis-related medicines would be treated as a controlled substance in the same way that the currently legal opium-related medicines are.
An overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis. Just last month, after reviewing more than 10,000 scientific abstracts, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report concluding there is substantial or conclusive evidence that cannabis is beneficial in the treatment of several medical conditions, including those referenced in our bill. And despite what the chief of law enforcement in our state says, the Academy also found no physiological “gateway” effect and no link between cannabis use and mortality, overdose deaths, or occupational accidents.
In addition, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with medical cannabis programs had a significant reduction in opioid overdose deaths — a decrease of 25 percent after the first year and 33 percent after five years. Why is that important? Well, in 2015, there were 715 opioid overdose deaths in South Carolina. A medical cannabis program could literally save hundreds of lives every year in our state.
With so many benefits, it is not surprising that medical cannabis has strong support from the public, medical professionals, and — in other states, anyway — law enforcement. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have already enacted medical cannabis programs, and a poll released last week by Quinnipiac showed 93 percent of Americans support the use of medical cannabis. In addition, a Pew poll from last January found that almost 70 percent of police officers also support medical cannabis programs, and a 2015 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine found 76 percent of doctors would recommend medical cannabis to a patient.
Those who oppose these compassionate programs rely on misinformation. One such canard is that medical cannabis increases teens’ recreational use; in reality, however, every state with a medical cannabis program has witnessed either a consistent use rate or a reduction in use. Another false claim is that medical cannabis programs lead to an increase in crime; to the contrary, there is no evidence that states with a medical cannabis program have had an increase in crimes. And opponents’ claim that cannabis is a “gateway drug” has been thoroughly debunked by numerous studies and is broadly dismissed by the medical community.
With all of these objections rebutted, opponents of medical cannabis are now reduced to saying that federal law prohibits the S.C. General Assembly from enacting such a program.
This is simply not true. Currently, 44 states — including South Carolina — have laws that acknowledge and protect the use of medical treatments derived from medical cannabis, and there has been no interference from the federal government. In fact, for the past several years, both the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress have officially adopted policies that prohibit federal intervention in state medical cannabis programs. And any concerns that the Trump administration would change this policy of noninterference have been eliminated, with the White House press secretary providing express assurances that states with medical cannabis programs would continue to be left alone.
The bottom line is that medical doctors — not politicians — should be in charge of deciding what medicine their patients should take. And it is past time for lawmakers in South Carolina to accept this basic truth: Thousands of residents in our state are needlessly suffering. Please contact your state senator or representative and demand they do the right thing.
Sen. Tom Davis is the state senator for South Carolina District 46.