Opinion: Medical marijuana can relieve needless suffering; South Carolina bill can make it safe


If you're looking for a losing strategy for persuading the South Carolina Legislature to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana, check out the "S.C. Cannabis Supporters United" rally last month at the Statehouse, which advocated for what supporters called "sensible decriminalization" of marijuana.

Although the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws called for "No fine, no jail time and no court costs" for possession of the drug and the repeal of a law that lets police search vehicles when they smell marijuana, speakers said their priority was legalizing medical marijuana.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Our legislators appropriately reject the idea of turning South Carolina into Colorado. That's why it was such a relief when the S.C. chapter of NORML dissolved earlier this year.

Our legislators are also appropriately concerned that legalizing medical marijuana could morph into de facto legalization for recreational use if, like other states, we don't tightly regulate it.

But legislators who consider those objections sufficient to continue to deny pain relief to people who need it are wrong.

It's not accurate to say we can't legalize the medicinal use of cannabis without opening the doors to further recreational use - just as it's not accurate to say we should ban prescription opioids because some people use them illegally and others become addicted to legal opioids, then graduate to illegal ones.

To the contrary, the fact that prescription opioids are so addictive that they turn law-abiding citizens into criminals is one of the big reasons it's so important to find a way to legalize medicinal marijuana. So too is the deadly effect of using those opioids even under a doctor's supervision: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 16,000 Americans died in 2020 from prescription opioids; in comparison, it notes that a fatal overdose of marijuana is "unlikely."

Opponents to medical marijuana overlook two important considerations.

First, the choice for people with debilitating pain isn't always between using marijuana or suffering - although that is the choice for some, and it's a morally difficult one to justify when there are relatively safe alternatives. The choice is more often between marijuana and opioids, which can often be less effective but are always more dangerous.

Second, the Congress has included language in the federal budget since 2015 to prohibit the Justice Department from interfering with states that allow the medicinal use of marijuana. That's not the same as prohibiting federal agents from arresting people for selling or using medical marijuana, but it is a legally binding acceptance of medical marijuana by the Congress and the president.

Sen. Tom Davis' Compassionate Care Act is the best effort we've seen to date to provide needed pain relief while preventing any expansion of recreational use.

As The Post and Courier's Nick Reynolds reports, smoking the drug would remain illegal under the bill senators passed Wednesday; patients could only use oil, salves, patches or vaporizers - which would make it a lot easier for police to distinguish legal from illegal use, without having to worry about forged prescriptions.

S.423 would allow marijuana to be used to treat only a tiny list of illnesses, primarily cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, sickle cell anemia, autism and some post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses. And it would have to be obtained through specially regulated pharmacies, in doses of only two weeks at a time, after physicians meet with patients in person. Employers could ban their workers from using the drug even for medical purposes, and the entire law would last for only five years, after which the program would continue only if the Legislature passed a new law.

If additional protections are needed, the House should add them. What the House should not do is refuse to debate legislation that would help provide safer and more effective pain relief than South Carolinians can legally access today, without opening a Pandora's box that law enforcement understandably fears.

This column was originally published Feb. 17 by The Post and Courier.