Medical Marijuana: Is South Carolina Ready?

The cathartic capacities of cannabis are continuously coming into clarity. All across the nation, citizens are waking up to therapeutic qualities provided by this flower. A plant once thought of as dangerous is now being praised as a cure-all by a growing percentage of the American population. Every day, patients and farmers alike are discovering the benefits of cultivating this tenacious plant. Some believe cannabis has potential to bring health to both fields and bodies. But not all agree. The U.S. Controlled Substances Act labels cannabis as a Schedule I drug. However, 20 states and the District of Columbia have loosened restrictions by permitting doctors to prescribe cannabis as a medication. A state’s medicinal policy can currently circumvent the national illegality and put medicine in the hands of needy patients.

The question is now turning tides on South Carolina. Would the Cannabis Industry find a friend in the Palmetto State? Political attempts are now being made to give patients and farmers access to this flower and its growing popularity. However, policy as drastic as this would affect the lives of all South Carolinians regardless of affiliation. The question now is: How will South Carolina weather the coming storm? Should it leap forward into the future or stand fast and sturdy in tradition?

Currently, South Carolina appeases the stance of the Federal Government by not regulating the distribution of cannabis. Although South Carolina has had a medical cannabis policy since 1982, there is currently no commercial production to funnel medicine from farm to patient. That all could be changing very soon. A charge led by Minority Whip Todd Rutherford was designed to breathe life into this fledgling industry.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control estimates the cost to fund a cannabis industry will begin at $450 million. Rutherford said he thinks that’s a “fantasy,” and is “cautiously optimistic” regarding the potential agribusiness boom arriving in South Carolina. In an interview with CisternYard News, Rutherford said, “If we give them the ability to legally grow, we put them on the road to profitability.”

The Pew Research Center estimates sales in the legalized cannabis industry to double to $3 billion between 2013 and 2014. Projections estimate as much as $6 billion by 2018. In Rutherford’s opinion, South Carolina is bound to rake in large slices of this pie. “South Carolina has a history of growing the world’s best tobacco,” Rutherford said. “I don’t see why we won’t grow the world’s best cannabis.”

South Carolina stands ready to pick up a whole new industry with the legalization of cannabis, but Rutherford’s priorities lie elsewhere. Rutherford stated his objective clearly, “I believe in empowering patients who need or can find help in cannabis.” That is the foundation of his entire campaign. Rutherford mentioned a woman in his district with cancer.  There is never a good time to find out you have been diagnosed with cancer, but being 40 and pregnant is especially unfortunate. Chemotherapy can be harmful to a fetus, but a mother who cannot hold down food is worse.Cannabis suppresses her pain and increases her appetite enough to allow for the digestion of the nourishment her unborn child required.

Millions of other Americans rely on cannabis for their health and well being. However, as a Schedule I drug, studies with the medicine are prohibited, and users are hesitant to come forward. Exact figures on cannabis patients in this country are hard to come by. However, a Gallup Poll recently showed that for the first time since prohibition and following historic trends, more Americans favor the legalization of cannabis than criminalizing its users. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s figures show more than a 42 percent drop in the seizure of cannabis plants nationwide in the past two years. These statistics coupled with the growing popularity and use of the flower creates a potential environment in which cannabis can exist and citizens can benefit.

Jamie Haase, a former agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, outlined the cannabis supply in the Holy City. “Based on my personal experience, and considering that Charleston is the tenth busiest port in the U.S,” Haase explained. “I think it’s accurate to assume that tens of thousands of pounds of cannabis arrive monthly into the port undetected.” While that figure my seam high, but considering the nation as a whole, that is a very small amount of cannabis.

Jamie theorized that only 9.97 percent of South Carolinians use cannabis monthly. That equates to roughly 470,000 South Carolinians who use medical marijuana on a monthly basis, despite its current status as a Schedule I drug.

Not everyone is anxiously awaiting the tentative arrival of cannabis on South Carolina shelves. Dr. Jane Ellis is a biology professor at the College of Charleston. She received her Doctorate in Medicinal Botany and since then, has participated in many clinical trials. Ellis approaches her classroom traditionally, but always succeeds at updating her students in a constantly evolving field.

Ellis took time out of her full day to sit down and discuss the chances of South Carolina becoming the 21st state to legalize cannabis. As a historian of medicinal plants, Ellis said that cannabis has been harvested since ancient times for its medicinal potential, but she was worried about the potency of the drugs on the market today.

Ellis recalled a conversation with her sister, a forensic chemist. She said, “potency is rising. You hear about how new cannabis strains have so much higher rates of THC. It is a cause for concern. Thinking back to soldiers using the drug in Vietnam, the stuff floating around today is nothing like what it was back then.” She has a valid point, media and anti-drug D.A.R.E campaigns have accused marijuana of multiplying its potency as much as 30 times over the past 40 years. This statistic is tentative at best, but not completely unwarranted.

According to the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Institute, “Depending on how the analysis was conducted and the sample analyzed, marijuana strength has increased by 2 to 7 times since the 1970s measured by THC levels.” Nonetheless, cannabis cultivation has led to extreme levels of diversification among the species, and increased levels of THC are a cause of concern for those debating the legitimacy of a medicinal cannabis habit.

As a medicinal botanist, Ellis said she could not deny the positive effects associated with intake of cannabinoids, the primary psychoactive component in cannabis and a naturally occurring chemical compound in the body, but she recommended other forms of distribution. “Buying prescription forms of cannabinoids in pill form has all the same pain-relieving effects. Why then is there a use for the legalized smokeable industry?” she asked. “It will be used for recreational experimentation.”

Marinol, the most popular form of synthetic cannabinoid, does in fact claim to increase appetite. However, its website warns against pregnant mothers using the substance as use of the drug could be harmful to the unborn. The synthetic cannabinoid argument forces out the opportunity for sustainable agriculture in South Carolina.

Eric McClam, operator of City Roots in Columbia, South Carolina, sat down to answer a few questions about his land use and land tenure.  City Roots operates as community sustained agriculture and works specifically to benefit the lives of its neighbors. He donates to Harvest Hope, a local food bank. A large portion of his crop is used by University of South Carolina dining halls. In McClam’s opinion, sustainability rests on three tenants: economic, social and environmental. He said he sees potential for a cannabis industry if the flower was legalized.

“I think you could draw similarities to tobacco,” McClam said. “Revenue through taxation of a cash crop has enormous potential to be profitable. There is absolutely a demand.”

Cannabis is a legume, which means its cultivation fixates necessary nitrogen back into soil. Cannabis is beneficial to the fields in which it is grown.  McClam said, “Assuming legalization, I see no reason why any farmer in America would not grow cannabis. I think every farmer nation wide is starved for another cash crop. There is definitely a demand.”

Demand or not, South Carolina’s medicinal cannabis status is still up for grabs and plenty of legislatures see no value in the flower. Bakari Sellers, one of the youngest members of the South Carolina General Assembly, said, “We have a long way to go for a medicinal structure to pass and I am not sure that many people would be in favor for it. It’s a stretch.”

Sellers intends to run for the lieutenant governor’s office next year. He is seeking election in hopes of making a difference due to a legislative performance that he finds “inadequate.”

“I am not a fan of taking this step,” Sellers said when asked about a potential boost from cannabis industry. “There are a lot of things that can be done in order to tackle the problems with our infrastructure.”

There are plenty of plans that could help to strengthen South Carolina’s infrastructure, decrease unemployment and improve education. Some ask if cannabis really is the most important thing to society. Sellers said “no.” He said he is an advocate for the Hollings Cancer Center. “I work closely with the premiere cancer research center in the state, if not the nation,” Sellers said. “This is not an issue I have ever heard them discuss.”

In late August of this year, the Justice Department deferred its right to challenge cannabis industry supported by state legislatures. The overall directional flow of things seems to be pointing in the direction of legalization. All across our nation, policies are moving in a relaxed direction. Medicinal support is emerging and policies are becoming more accepting. Nevertheless, South Carolina has always been a fiercely independent state. Always marching to the beat of its own drum. In addressing the state’s high number of possession charges, Seller’s said, “I believe policy change is the way to alter our correction system for the better, and I believe that will happen a long time before legalization.” In regard to the nationwide policy relaxation, Sellers said, “I do not ever remember a time when the state of South Carolina has modeled themselves off another state. I see no reason to step behind Colorado or Washington now.” This fiercely independent spirit can be modeled in the legalized medicinal camp as well.

“It’s not the government’s business to tell people what they can and cannot ingest,” Rutherford said. “I am not a doctor and I do not smoke, so my opinion will not change, but I will not tell a doctor how to do their job. Headaches, so be it. Chronic pain, arthritis, asthma, chemotherapy, so be it.” Rutherford has done research on the issue and finds no reasonable factor to detour his ambition. “From all I can see the gateway drug argument is ridiculous. No one can deny its medicinal capacity. A doctor can prescribe narcotics, a doctor can prescribe oxycodone, one of the most addictive drugs there is, but he cannot prescribe cannabis, and that’s just stupid.”

Rutherford, like millions of other Americans, is passionate about this issue. It is an endeavor he has undertaken and will not easily let go. “I’m not gonna stop,” he said. Rutherford injected his clause into two separate bills last term, and on both occasions, they were voted down as non-germane. There is a bill coming up next term, and he is excited to rally supporters again. “There are a lot in Congress who want to see this regulated, and there are a lot who want to see it legalized,” Rutherford said.

If national directions are an indicator that the cannabis discussion will not go away, what does that mean for South Carolinians and their businesses? Is medicinal cannabis just over the horizon or still far off? Only time will tell, but some argue that the true sufferers are those patients who require cannabis and are deprived of their flower by policy. For all of those stuck between the folds of a system, change may soon be on the way.


The author of this article gained knowledge on cannibis policy through his affiliation with Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and his grandfather, who used cannabis therapy to cope with Alzheimer’s. 

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