On Jan. 15, 2019, Sen. Tom Davis (R-Dist. 46) stood in the South Carolina statehouse to tout the 2019 Compassionate Care Act (CCA) as “the most conservative” medical marijuana bill in the country. A week later, fellow Republican and state attorney general Alan Wilson stood in the same spot and denounced the bill with an arguably larger crowd of supporters.

Those who spoke at Wilson’s presser blurred the lines between cannabis, opioids and alcohol and made inaccurate statements about even silly things like the number of “joints” in an ounce of pot (he said you can roll 60, which cannabis users wish were true). Such hyperbole is a red herring — something that distracts attention from the real issue — since the CCA doesn’t allow for the smoking of cannabis flower.

Soon after, Wilson was rebuked by Davis, cannabis advocates and the media for calling marijuana “the most dangerous drug,” a statement he rolled back via Twitter.

[Image: S.C. state Sen. Tom Davis (R-46) spoke to consituents and other legislators following a press conference announcing the filing of the 2019 Compassionate Care Act, Jan. 15, 2019, Columbia, S.C.]

[Video: Immediately following the Jan. 15 press conference, S.C. state Rep. J. Todd Rutherford (D-74), Minority Leader in the Hosue of Representatives, spoke to Carolina Cannabis News and accused state law enforcment of making money off of cannabis prohibition and chided the state’s medical community for their push back on reform efforts.]

The same day Wilson was defensive on Twitter, a new advocacy group completed a statewide voter survey. One of the group’s organizers is a friend of Wilson’s, a friendship the attorney general’s office confirmed.

That friend, Wesley Donehue, owner of Push Digital, a public relations company, says the memory of his mother’s opioid addiction and death led him to create the South Carolina Cannabis Association.

“My mother died of an opioid overdose in 2004 and she was managing her pain with marijuana until the doctors told her that was ‘irresponsible’,” he says. “I’ve been a passionate advocate for a number of years but just decided to get really loud recently especially as people that I consider to be my friends, like the attorney general, have what I consider the wrong opinion,” Donehue says.

As if on cue, news leaked that the World Health Organization recommended to the United Nations that it reclassify marijuana to its “least harmful” classification and remove cannabidiol (CBD) entirely from its schedule of prohibited drugs.

[Image: Wesley Donehue courtesy of Push Digital]

Widespread support for medical marijuana

Also in January, the S.C. Cannabis Association, Push Digital and WPA Intelligence, a Conservative polling firm, released the results of a survey of more 600 likely voters in South Carolina.

According to the poll, 58 percent of Palmetto State voters “support legislation that expands access to medical cannabis.” Support is higher among Independents (72 percent) and Democrats (65 percent) than Republicans (45 percent). The results also indicate 57 percent of voters surveyed “are more likely to vote for an elected official who supports legislation” for medical cannabis, and that includes 42 percent of Republicans.

“I think the attorney general means well and has a great heart; he wants to keep people safe,” says Donehue, “but he’s incredibly misinformed on the topic. I think he’s listening to the wrong people.”

In this case, the ‘wrong people’ are South Carolina law enforcement officers and doctors, advocates and legislators that the state attorney general described as being “30 people deep” on each side of him and standing behind him in in the statehouse during his press conference on Jan. 23.

58% of Palmetto State voters “support legislation that expands access to medical cannabis”

57% of voters surveyed “are more likely to vote for an elected official who supports legislation” for medical cannabis

“I think he’s following the lead of the sheriffs and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED),” says Donehue, “and they’re giving him bad advice.”

Wilson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

SLED’s Chief Mark Keel’s spokesperson referred us to his statements during the press conference where two minutes of his four-minute speech was dedicated to convincing the public that just because he and the flanking crowd oppose the Compassionate Care Act doesn’t mean they aren’t compassionate.

At the end of Wilson’s press conference, he thanked Keel for being a leader in cannabis prohibition. Even Gov. Henry McMaster defers to him, saying in his last debate of 2018, “It is the opinion, the consistent opinion, of law enforcement that it would be a detriment to society, to law enforcement, to open the door to (cannabis). Now, when law enforcement is satisfied that it can be controlled, then that’s a different story.”

Prohibitionists on the wrong side of the data

The remainder of Keel’s speech was full of hyperbole and a worldview that puts the status quo ahead of children with epilepsy, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and countless others who might experience relief from illnesses or pain should medical marijuana become legal in South Carolina. Not to mention those caught in an unjust legal system highlighted by a recent investigative report by The Greenville News that found South Carolina police target people of color, use marijuana as probable cause for searches, seize private property to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and don’t give it back.

According to a Pew Research Center report, released in 2017, South Carolina’s police officials are out of step with other police officers nationwide, 68 percent of whom support “relaxing marijuana laws.”

Keel and others who spoke at Wilson’s press conference called for federal oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the opposite of usual States’ Rights arguments out of what Keel described as an “independent” South Carolina. He also made erroneous connections between cannabis, opioid abuse, overdoses and deaths. In 2017, the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services published a report that states, “From 2014 to 2017, the total number of opioid-involved overdose deaths increased by 47 percent.” According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “No deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported.” Ever.

From 2014 to 2017, the total number of opioid-involved overdose deaths increased by 47 percent.S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services

Keel also said, “This is not medicine, and it cannot continue to be prescribed …”

He failed to explain why. But a 2014 issue of the Journal of Ethics, an American Medical Association publication does: “Discrepancies between federal and state medicinal marijuana laws have placed doctors—and patients—in a difficult situation: to provide their patients with medicinal marijuana, doctors must risk violating federal law and, potentially, the revocation of their Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) licenses.”

The prohibitionists blamed “pain clinics” for the opioid crisis, then days later national news broke that Purdue Pharma not only knew its widely-prescribed drug, OxyContin, led to addiction and deaths but that it also attempted to profit from anti-addiction drugs.

Comments about marijuana and car accidents have also been debunked as fearmongering, even as organizations like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute make headlines for making such claims. But if you read the articles, they, too, call for more data and research according to The Washington Post, ” … cautioned that the study results indicate only a correlation between marijuana legalization and a higher number of crashes, and says more research would be necessary to determine whether marijuana use caused the increase.”

Per Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, “It is far too early in the history of legalization to make determinations about whether legalization increases the number of impaired drivers, but for the time being it appears there is no relationship between the two.”

And statements about marijuana leading to violent crime have even been disproven by organizations like Snopes.com which states, “no credible data exists that supports a significant association between increased violent crime and marijuana legalization.”

The speakers at Attorney General Wilson’s press conference repeated comments about cannabis addiction, too.

“The big-picture view is that the vast majority of people who use cannabis are not going to be problematic users,” said Jolene Forman, an attorney at the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance told The Atlantic magazine in Aug. 2018. “They’re not going to have a cannabis-use disorder. They’re going to have a healthy relationship with it. And criminalization actually increases the harms related to cannabis, and so having a strictly regulated market where there can be limits on advertising, where only adults can purchase cannabis, and where you’re going to get a wide variety of products makes sense.”

The marijuana naysayers also repeatedly called for more research without explaining that federal prohibition – itself political and not science-based – is what’s prohibiting research in many cases, though some studies, like one focused on PTSD and cannabis use in veterans, are underway.

[Read this OpEd: Dr. Sue Sisley, MD, of Arizona claps back at S.C. attorney general and others opposed to medical marijuana

The truth is that the medical community was in favor of medical cannabis before prohibition, according to a 1937 letter from the American Medical Association to Congress. And, in the 1970s, at the time President Nixon created the scheduling system for drugs —  long considered his push back on anti-war protesters, he was advised by the Conservative Shafer Commission not to outlaw marijuana. “Nixon vehemently rejected the Commission’s report,” according to a 2016 Time magazine article.

Meanwhile, the infirm suffer

Jill Swing, a medical cannabis advocate with the Compassionate Care Alliance, says prohibition in South Carolina “… forces moms like us on the black market to get medicine for our kids. That’s just not the way you want to access your child’s medicine.” Her daughter, Mary Louise, has intractable epilepsy and cerebral palsy. During an interview following Sen. Davis’ press conference, Swing says cannabis improves the quality of her daughter’s life. But during the press conference, she says, she was reflecting on the thousands of seizures her 11-year-old has had in the five years that she’s been advocating for medical cannabis.

[Video: Jill Swing, of the Compassionate Care Alliance, spoke to Carolina Cannabis News following Sen. Davis’ press conference announcing the filing of the 2019 Compassionate Care Act, Jan. 15, 2019.]

“What we need is in-state cultivation and a truly state-regulated product so we know it is what it says it is, that it’s grown under specific requirements, so we know that what we’re giving our children – if nothing else – is a safe and consistent product,” Swing said in an interview last fall. At that time, she also said moving her family to a “legal state” isn’t feasible.

Now she and other advocates must wait and watch while those in power argue in front of television cameras and boast about how compassionate they are when it comes to everything but cannabis.

On the podcast, South Carolina cannabis attorney Robert Ianuario discusses how current state law has impacted his clients for the worse:

BY Rhiannon Fionn

BY Rhiannon Fionn

Editor & Publisher

Rhiannon Fionn is an award-winning journalist based in Charlotte, N.C.

[Header image of the South Carolina state capital by Sean Pavone via iStock.]