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One senator’s insight into the political reality of medical marijuana in the South

South Carolina Republican Senator Tom Davis is a dedicated public servant on a mission that confirms why he got into politics in the first place. The calling began when the state passed its first medical cannabis bill that did little to advance what patients could get and what could be treated.

That bill was the South Carolina Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Treatment Act, which was signed into law in June, 2014. It was very restrictive, allowing only CBD oil for treatment of epilepsy in children. The good news is that it cleared the House with a vote of 92-5. Clearly, there was support for medical marijuana.

So on the first day of the legislative session, January 10, 2017, Davis and fellow Republican Representative Peter McCoy introduced the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (S 212/ H 3521), a comprehensive medical cannabis bill, that would allow seriously ill patients with debilitating medical conditions to obtain state ID cards to allow them to access medical cannabis from a state regulated dispensary.

Davis immediately began pushing it into subcommittees.

This is the south, and change comes slowly. Especially when it comes to cannabis.

He has fought the good fight since January for the bill, and gained some ground.  But it’s slow going. “The debate has shifted away from trying to prevent it from happening and being completely resistant to have them at the table trying to make the bill better,” Davis says. “It’s a big shift. It’s a huge step in South Carolina.”

The state’s legislative session ended on May 11, and the bill is on hold for now. The state is in their first year of a two-year session, which is how the legislative session is structured in the state, so progress takes time. “The bill received considerable testimony this year,” Davis says, adding that there were three different subcommittee hearings, each focusing on a different area.

One subcommittee was for medical testimony from doctors testifying about the medical benefits of cannabis; a second subcommittee was dedicated to law enforcement concerns about diversion of medical cannabis to recreational use, and wanting more of an oversight in the growing and dispensing process; and the third subcommittee was for state agencies that would be involved in the mechanics of setting up the medical marijuana program. “The chairman of that subcommittee indicated that we now received all of the testimony that he thinks is needed to move the bill forward,” Davis says.

What happens now is that, over the summer and through the fall, they will take what they learned in the testimony phase and incorporate that into a new draft of the bill. When the session reconvenes in January, 2018, he believes that they will have a bill that is ready to move out of subcommittee and into the full committee. “It was always my expectation that this was going to take the full two years of a two year session,” Davis says. “We had a lot of resistance from the law enforcement community, and we didn’t really have the medical association of physicians completely on board with this. But I think we will move quickly once we get back in session in January.”

The resistance of the law enforcement community has been a big reason that the bill has taken so long to get to the subcommittee level. Davis recalled that, when the bill was going out in the community for discussion, law enforcement would be at the locations in advance – at rotary club meetings, city council meetings – spreading information about the evils of cannabis, complete with the gateway drug argument.

But here, in the south, there is more to consider when it comes to a bill promoting the use of cannabis, even medicinally. “South Carolina tends to be more evangelical, more Protestant than other states,” he says. “They get involved in more social issues and politics than other states. The issue of marijuana is wrapped up in the thinking ‘Is this a proper lifestyle? Are you making a proper moral choices? Is this something that we are introducing into our society that is going to lead to an erosion of values?’” he says. “All of those things are very real in South Carolina. You have to respect those concerns.” He says that the one thing you learn in this state is that you never change somebody’s mind “by shaking a fist at them.”

People in South Carolina are suspicious of government – government intruding on how a family should act, government intruding on privacy, government intruding on individual rights. “What we are talking about here is empowering individuals and families to make choices in consultation with their physicians, as opposed to having the state dictate to you what you can or can’t do,” he says. “That’s how you have to frame the debate in this state.”

He was able to really make progress in the state on the bill when he made it about personal stories of people with illness, and how cannabis worked for them.

The first personal story that got him involved was about six-year-old Mary Louise, daughter of one of his constituents, Jill Swing. Mary Louise suffered 100 epileptic seizures an hour. After treatment with CBD oil, she suffered just 19. “Because of the contact with Jill, I decided to research medical cannabis, dig into it, and learn about the science of it,” Davis says. “Up until then, it wasn’t on my radar. I was talking about education and infrastructure. But because of that story by my constituent, I got involved. I met with Mary Louise and found out the difference CBD oil made in her life.”

Many of the citizens in South Carolina already view cannabis as being a subculture that can undermine traditional values. “When you rephrase it to show them that what we are doing here is empowering families and individuals, and not ceding that power to the government, that opens their eyes. You change them. But it’s a slow process.”

Over the next few months and into the fall of this year, they are going to modify the bill, revise it, and take it to law enforcement and the medical community for their comments. “We are going to have constructive engagement,” he says. “And that is what I think has been an important development in the last few months.”

For him, getting a medical marijuana bill passed in South Carolina, as he hopes to do during the state’s next legislative session, would be a personal triumph as a politician. It’s a legacy making moment. “As a politician, sometimes you get frustrated when you talk about tax policy and various other things. You don’t feel like you are making a difference,” Davis says. “This is one of those rare issues where, ten or fifteen years from now, I can look back and take a great deal of satisfaction in that I really helped a lot of families. To me, that is what it’s all about. That is why you get involved in politics.”

David HodesDavid Hodes

David Hodes

David Hodes is based in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area. He is the former editor of seven different business magazines, and has contributed feature articles to several business/lifestyle publications and national cannabis magazines. Hodes is also a former field producer for CBS News, NBC, NFL Network, ESPN and other media outlets; worked as a news promotions producer for two network affiliates; and was the morning news editor for a third network affiliate.

He is member of the National Press Club, and deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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