By Colin Demarest
Rock Hill native Rosemary Wallace suffers from PTSD. Perry Parks, a North Carolina Vietnam veteran suffers from PTSD and chronic back pain. Janel Ralph’s 6-year-old daughter Harmony suffers from lissencephaly, a brain disease that induces daily seizures.
Although they live in different places, they share one thing in common: the use of cannabis and its derivatives to treat their conditions.
Though Harmony is currently able to use hemp oil, a legal substance in South Carolina as of 2014, Wallace and Parks use cannabis and medical marijuana, which are illegal substances in South Carolina.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is aiming to change this. Davis – along with Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg – is trying to get medical marijuana legalized in South Carolina.
“This is a very conservative bill,” Davis said. “We’re talking about a controlled substance that’s treated like a controlled substance, just like opiates are.” Davis, though, stresses that he is not looking to legalize recreational use at any point.
The bill will enable South Carolina doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine to patients suffering from a handful of diagnoses including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, fibromyalgia, spinal cord injury and a wide range of chronic pain issues.
It also arranges for a “seed-to-sale” tracking system that Davis said has “built in inspections for SLED to make sure the cannabis isn’t diverted for recreational use.”
The legalization of medical marijuana in South Carolina remains an uphill battle in part because of strong opposition from law enforcement agencies. South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder said doctors and illicit drugs do not mix.
“A doctor cannot prescribe a Schedule I drug,” Bruder said. Schedule I drugs, as listed by the DEA, include marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, bath salts, and LSD.
Comments SLED Chief Mark Keel made before 2015 Senate Subcommittee echo Bruder’s sentiments.
“This legislation, with the very best of intentions, will end up having negative long term impacts on those very individuals who are seeking help,” Keel said. Keel also said that without proper research and documentation from the Federal Drug Administration, approving the legislation would be “incredibly irresponsible.”
But Wallace, an avid user of cannabis and the executive director of the Carolinas Cannabis Coalition, attributes the statewide marijuana battle to regional racism.
“It’s all about race,” she said. “Here, they run from me like the plague. It’s not that I do weed, it’s the fact that I’m black.”
But she acknowledges cannabis’ negative connotations and ill repute, something she traces back to 1937’s cultish propaganda “Reefer Madness.”
Wallace is a US Army veteran and recent graduate of Denver’s Cannabis University, a school that educates and trains students for the cannabis industry in Colorado.
Wallace suffers from anxiety and sleep deprivation, complications and accessories to her PTSD. In Colorado, she holds a state-issued medical marijuana card for these ailments.
When in South Carolina, Wallace says she takes five medications. In Colorado, she takes two – marijuana substitutes for the other three.
“It’s a constant fight,” Wallace said. “Without the medication, you drag.”
As a result, Wallace splits her time between states, staying in Colorado for business and to retain residency, a necessity for her to maintain her medical card.
Wallace is calling for State House progress on Davis’ bill. But she also worries that the bill, in its current state, does not take into account certain demographics.
“There’s going to be some people left out – poor people that can not afford the medication. Are they going to give it to vets?”
Parks, 73, a retired Army officer, is a resident of Rockingham, North Carolina and hopes veterans will have access to medical marijuana if they need it.
Parks, executive director of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, is no stranger to the political scene. Recently, he attended a Donald Trump rally in Florence, South Carolina in full uniform. He was there to see if Trump would support medical marijuana.
North Carolina, like South Carolina, still holds cannabis as a Schedule I drug and outlaws it. But Parks unabashedly says he is a medical marijuana patient and says the Schedule I classification is “insane.”
Although he is not a South Carolina resident, Parks is a perfect example of what most cannabis-consuming veterans have to deal with, both locally and nationally.
Parks has to go through illegal channels to get his cannabis, in contrast to Wallace’s ability to obtain the drug in Colorado.
“I have to get it on the black market and I’m subject to arrest,” Parks said.
Prior to discovering cannabis, Parks was prescribed a cocktail of prescription drugs, including muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, and sleep aides. He also took back injections for his chronic back pain. He said he became so regimented in his medications that he ended up addicted to Ambien, which he took nightly for five years.
But cannabis changed things for him, he said. After he started smoking, he was able to get rid of the majority of his prescribed medications.
“When I finally found out what it would do, my mind was blown.” Parks said. “Opioids for PTSD do no good.”
Parks cited an American Medical Association study to back up his anti-opioid stance.
The 2014 study lead by Marcus Bachhuber, which measured opioid overdose deaths in states with and without medical marijuana over the course of a decade, made the point that “states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate.”
The study also stated that medical cannabis laws are “associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose.”
The study included people who used heroin, a combination of opiates, and single prescriptions. The study could not directly link the legality of medical marijuana to a decline in opiate overdose rates, however, due to outside influential factors.
For Davis, the Beaufort senator, opiate addiction and harm reduction are a top priority. Davis recognized the growing pain pill addiction rates in America and found marijuana’s prohibition “ridiculous.”
“We have a law in place that allows individuals to consume medicines based in opiates,” Davis said. “But something that is much less dangerous, not addictive, and much more effective at relieving pain – we’re somehow going to let social prejudices that we’ve had for decades to stand in the way of a doctor.”
Following an inconclusive four day hospital stay for Harmony, Janel Ralph was ready to research cannabis-based treatments for her daughter.
“At the time, I was like every other conservative republican in the state,” Ralph said. “Marijuana? No.”
The passing of “Julian’s Law,” and thus the legalization of cannabinoid (CBD) oil in South Carolina, opened up CBD treatment to a very narrow slice of people – namely those suffering from severe forms of epilepsy
However, according to Ralph, CBD oil legislation was ineffective in treating Harmony’s “smooth brain” induced complications and seizures, so she had to look elsewhere.
South Carolina passed the hemp law in 2014, which reclassified cannabis with less than .3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as a crop. Ralph was ecstatic. As Ralph soon discovered, hemp oil was exactly what Harmony needed.
Through the palliative use of hemp oil, Ralph was able to wean Harmony off of barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
Eventually, Ralph began a hemp oil business with other parents. The company, Palmetto Harmony, has now become a leader in the state.
According to Ralph, future THC treatments will be necessary for Harmony’s condition, as it gets worse with age. Ralph does not balk at this prospect.
“Of course I’m going to treat her with it. It’s kept her alive this long,” Ralph said.
In terms of the Senate bill, Ralph wants the measure to be inclusive so that veterans, cancer patients and others are granted the access they need.
In reference to veterans and other marijuana-dependent patients, Ralph said, “we cannot compromise for our children and leave everyone else out.”
As the South Carolina legislature debates the bill, Ralph says every delay is “killing people in South Carolina.”
Wallace blames State House delays on the senators who are inserting their personal opinions into the debate.
Parks blames social and legislative stalls on a lack of education, citing a verse from the New Testament book of Acts 3:17 – “and now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”
Davis simply believes that the use of medical marijuana, for at least veterans and PTSD sufferers, is a life or death matter, and the legislation is stalled because of outdated stigmas.
“Why would you want 170 politicians in the State House standing in between what a doctor believes can be therapeutic benefit to their patient?” Davis said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”