Politics & Government

Rock Hill activists hope SC medical marijuana bill will reduce physical pain and legal stress

Chuck Furr and Rosemary Wallace review a copy of South Carolina’s medical marijuana bill on Wallace’s tablet. Both use cannabis medicinally, and are hopeful their stories can spur legislative change.
Chuck Furr and Rosemary Wallace review a copy of South Carolina’s medical marijuana bill on Wallace’s tablet. Both use cannabis medicinally, and are hopeful their stories can spur legislative change. bmarchant@heraldonline.com

For the past two years, Rosemary Wallace has been smoking marijuana legally, with her doctor’s permission.

Just not here.

Instead, Wallace, an Army veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and other physical ailments, has split time between her family home outside Rock Hill and a residence in Colorado, where she holds a state-issued medical marijuana card that allows her to buy and use cannabis products from licensed dispensaries in the state.

“I rent a room through a veteran friend of mine,” Wallace said. She flies back there every three to six months and stays just long enough to maintain her eligibility for Colorado’s medical marijuana program. “I just have to get mail at a physical address.”

It’s a stressful situation to add on top of the medical conditions she travels west to relieve. Wallace leaves her family behind in South Carolina to get her medication, and when she comes back, state and federal law require her to leave any marijuana-infused products behind.

“I’ve gone $6,000 in debt maintaining two houses,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to leave my home to get treatment.”

If some South Carolina legislators have their way, patients like Wallace may no longer have to go out of their way to seek their preferred treatment for chronic conditions. Last week, a subcommittee of the S.C. Senate’s medical affairs committee advanced a piece of legislation that would create the infrastructure for South Carolina to license and regulate its own medical marijuana industry.

It’s still early for the bill. It won’t be reviewed by the full committee until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and then faces the hurdle of passing both chambers and receiving the governor’s signature. But the fact the bill got at least some senators’ approval in the face of vocal opposition from law enforcement agencies means South Carolina just might join 23 other states, and the District of Columbia, that allow their citizens to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, sits on the committee that will ultimately decide the fate of the Senate bill next year. Although Hayes isn’t on the subcommittee that voted on the bill, he said South Carolina is ready to have a serious discussion of the issue.

“I’m willing to listen to both sides,” he said. “I think the key thing is to be cautious. We need to approach this in a good, planned way with adequate safeguards ... We need to approach it at least as seriously as prescription drugs.”

Hayes put the odds at “better than 50-50” the bill will ultimately be debated on the Senate floor.

A similar medical marijuana bill is still in committee in the House after the measure was introduced this spring, with Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, as one of its sponsors.

“We have kids and adults who need some kind of alternative medicine,” King said. “If marijuana will do that for them, I’m not shy about saying I’m supportive of that.”

King hopes the bipartisan nature of his bill – it’s co-sponsored by Charleston Republican Jenny Horne – means it can attract support from both sides of the aisle when the Legislature resumes.

That would be good news to Chuck Furr, a York resident who has battled multiple sclerosis for the past 10 years. At times, Furr’s MS has been so bad it has confined him to a wheelchair, but he became suspicious of mainstream pharmaceuticals after he had a reaction to the MS drug Tysabri that “felt like I got dumped in a bath of fire ants.” If it hadn’t been administered in a hospital, Furr fears the drug could have killed him.

“I don’t want anything in my body that I can’t pronounce,” he said.

Instead, Furr began self-medicating with marijuana, and says it has relieved many of his symptoms. When he stops smoking, Furr said he can see the MS get progressively worse.

“My neurologist couldn’t tell me to use it, but he didn’t tell me not to use it,” he said.

Wallace had a similar reaction to the medication Gebapentin, which left her with blurred vision and even temporary blindness. She cut back on the medication after she lost her vision while driving on Interstate 77.

Both say they get better results from smoking marijuana than they do from from conventional treatments.

While she knows she might get some negative reactions to “coming out of the cannabis closet,” Wallace has become active as a director of the Carolinas Cannabis Coalition. She traveled to Columbia to testify before the medical affairs subcommittee, sitting behind a row of uniformed law-enforcement officers who came out against the bill. She also hosts a cannabis-themed online radio show called the Midday Burn on speaker.com.

She’s even begun talking about the drug with her pastor and members of her church. “We’ll see if I get communion on Sunday,” she said.

She hopes other people like her speaking out on the issue will help when the bill comes up in the Legislature next year. Furr even thinks South Carolina’s acceptance of medical marijuana could lead to a breakthrough in federal drug policy because “they’re waiting to see what the Bible belt is going to do.”

“Where’s the Christian compassion for sufferers like us?” he asks. “God gave us this plant for medicine.”

But Hayes cautions the bill still has a long way to go in the Senate.

“There are some extremely pressing issues we already can’t get through the Senate,” he said. “We can’t get a roads bill passed. We can’t get ethics reform passed. The rules are such that even the majority can’t move a bill without broad consensus.”

Maybe too broad to keep Wallace from staying in Colorado for at least part of the year.

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome