This story was published in conjunction with Carolina Cannabis News.
On Jan. 15, state Sen. Tom Davis stood in the South Carolina Statehouse and touted the latest edition of the Compassionate Care Act as “the most conservative” medical marijuana bill in the country.
A week later, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a fellow Republican, stood in the same spot and denounced the bill with an even larger entourage of supporters surrounding him.
Those who proceeded to speak at Wilson’s presser blurred the lines between cannabis and drugs like opioids and inebriates like alcohol and made inaccurate statements about even silly things, like the number of “joints” in an ounce of pot — he said 60, which cannabis users wish were true. (No matter, since Davis’ bill doesn’t allow for the smoking of the cannabis bud.) Not too long after, Wilson was rightly scolded by advocates and the media for calling marijuana “the most dangerous drug.”
Shortly after, as Wilson tried to walk that back on Twitter, a new advocacy group was putting together a statewide poll on the issue. One of the group’s organizers is a longtime friend and colleague of Wilson’s.
That friend, Wesley Donehue, a Republican political operative and owner of the marketing agency Push Digital, says he’s off the sidelines when it comes to cannabis reform.
Donehue’s memory of his mother’s struggle with drugs led him to create the South Carolina Cannabis Association.
“My passion comes for it because 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.
On cue, a few days later, the World Health Organization recommended that the United Nations reclassify marijuana to its “least harmful” classification and remove cannabidiol (CBD) entirely from its schedule of prohibited drugs.
Widespread support for medical marijuana
In January, the S.C. Cannabis Association, Push Digital, and WPA Intelligence, a conservative research firm, released the results of that survey of more than 600 likely voters in South Carolina, conducted between January 22 and 24.
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). But the results indicate that 57 percent of voters say they are “are more likely to vote for an elected official who supports legislation” for medical cannabis, including 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” that day he stood in the Statehouse on Jan. 23.
“He needs to stick with law enforcement; I think he’s following the lead of the sheriffs and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division,” says Donehue. “And they’re giving him bad advice.”
Wilson did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and SLED Chief Mark Keel sent a message through a spokesperson to review his statements during Wilson’s press conference.
Two minutes of Keel’s four-minute speech were dedicated to convincing the public, with a soldier’s certainty, that just because he opposes the Compassionate Care Act doesn’t mean he and his allies aren’t compassionate.
At the end of Wilson’s presser, he thanked Keel for being a leader in cannabis prohibition. Even Gov. Henry McMaster defers to the SLED chief on state marijuana laws — the Columbia equivalent of Lindsey Graham siding with “the generals in the field.”
South Carolina police out of step, and wrong
The remaining substance of Keel’s speech, which included some hyperbole, defaulted to the current law enforcement status quo ahead of children with epilepsy, veterans with PTSD, and others who would experience relief should medical marijuana become legal in South Carolina.
Not only do they disagree with S.C. voters, Keel and Wilson are out of step with their law enforcement colleagues nationwide, where nearly 70 percent of cops support relaxing marijuana laws, according to a 2017 Pew report. As the Greenville News recently reported, in South Carolina police use existing drug laws as grounds to confiscate millions of dollars worth of personal property from people who wind up never being convicted.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that limits should be placed on such “civil asset forfeiture” confiscations.
Calling for more federal oversight, something you don’t hear often in South Carolina, Keel also made erroneous connections between cannabis, opioid abuse, overdoses, and deaths.
In 2017, a Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services report said “opioid-involved overdose deaths increased by 47 percent” since 2014. Meanwhile, a 2018 federal DEA report, “No deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported.” Ever.
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.”
Swing’s daughter Mary Louise has intractable epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Following Davis’ press conference, Swing says cannabis improves the quality of her daughter’s life. Swing says that during the event, 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 in South Carolina.
“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 a phone interview last fall. At that time, she also said moving her family to a legal state isn’t feasible.
Until reform comes, she and other advocates will be forced to wait and watch while those in power argue in front of television cameras.