State Politics

Medical marijuana won't pass in SC this year. Here's why advocates are happy

When Mack Hudson of Lexington was 16 years old, he was paralyzed when he fractured his skull, broke his neck and shattered a key vertebra in a car wreck.

Over the past 10 years, he's been prescribed increasing doses of opioids — Percocet and Roxycodone to alleviate the pain.

"It messes with my head," he said. "I can't think straight. I can't function straight. I'm just not myself."

So Hudson traveled to California and Colorado to experiment with marijuana.

"It worked wonders," he said.

But Hudson likely will have to wait to get medical marijuana in the Palmetto State.

A key S.C. House committee failed to even meet on the subject Tuesday, despite a rally outside of the State House by advocates urging them do so.

And a Senate subcommittee barely passed a flock of amendments to a bill before it was even allowed to rise to the committee level. That caused the bill's author, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to admit that, for the fourth year in a row, there wasn't enough time on the legislative calendar to get a bill passed.

So why were some of the most dedicated medical marijuana advocates smiling in the halls of the Senate's Gressette Building on Wednesday?

"We're making progress," said Janel Ralph, executive director of the Compassionate South Carolina patient advocacy group. "The bill is moving forward."

Cannabis slowly gaining acceptance

The march of cannabis in South Carolina has been slow but steady.

Four years ago, the state legalized cannabis oils with less than 0.9 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC to control seizures in children with epilepsy.

Last year, the General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, a bill green-lighting a pilot hemp growing program that allowed 20 S.C. farmers to grow 20 acres of hemp each. Hemp is marijuana's close cousin, but without high enough levels of THC to get users high.

The hemp will be used for products as varied as hemp oil, textiles and biomass. A bill allowing unlimited hemp cultivation, however, was stuck in committee this year.

And now medical marijuana, which many consider, rightly or wrongly, the gateway legislation to legalized recreation marijuana use, is inching ahead.

The reason for the smile in the back halls of Gressette is that with the amendments approved 4-1 by the Senate Medical Affairs Subcommittee, advocates think they have a bill that will be palatable to the entire General Assembly and the governor next year.

Supporters of the bill are also encouraged by polling that shows 78 percent of South Carolinians support legalizing marijuana for medical use.

"We are getting the support to get this thing done," said Ralph of Conway.

The most conservative lines

But there are still many lawmakers who have strong reservations about medical marijuana.

Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, said it could be a cover for those who just want to smoke pot.

"It helps people who want marijuana for recreational use," he said. "I hope we don't move it forward this year."

He voted against accepting the amendment to the bill and elevating the bill to the full committee.

And subcommittee chairman Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, said he doubted the medical benefits of marijuana.

"I have reservations about the overwhelming medical benefits, and I'm chagrined by that," he said.

Verdin added he wanted the bill to adopt "the most conservative lines, the most conservative in the country," before he voted to accept the amendments and recommend the bill to the full committee.

Bringing police on board

On Wednesday, Davis ticked off the amendments he said would make South Carolina's medical marijuana, or Compassionate Care Law as it is called, the most conservative in the nation.

The amendments include:

Prohibiting the dispensing or smoking of marijuana in its leaf form and narrowing the number of qualifying health conditions that can be treated with cannabis. Marijuana derivatives would be dispensed only by methods such as oils, vapors and edibles.

Allowing police access to every stage of growing, processing and dispensing marijuana

Tightening the qualifications for physicians to recommend medical marijuana as a treatment and require them to enroll in continuing education classes on the subject

The key, Davis and other subcommittee members said, was the input and participation of law enforcement. Mark Keel, head of the State Law Enforcement Division, has said medical marijuana would open a “Pandora’s box” if legalized in the state.

"The bill is not going to be taken up for consideration, much less passed, unless we meet and address the concerns of law enforcement," Davis said. "I understand that."

'People freak out'

But Davis added that not allowing patients like Hudson, the paralyzed man from Lexington, the access to non-opioid pain relievers would be "inhumane and immoral."

For Hudson, it's a matter of common sense.

"Whenever I have a bottle of 120 Roxycodone (pills) and 120 Percocets because the doctor prescribe it, people don't bat an eye," he said. "But if I was to have a brownie with a little bit of cannabis in it, people freak out. But the other drugs mess you up way more."

Davis said that legal or not, folks are going to find access to marijuana if it helps their conditions or those of their loved ones.

"There has to be a way to keep these families from going to the black market and becoming criminals," he said.

Opioid deaths in South Carolina increased by 21 percent from 2014 to 2016. In 2016, there were 616 opioid-related deaths in South Carolina — twice the number of people who were murdered or died in car wrecks.

There were 101 deaths in Horry County, followed by 65 in Charleston County and 53 in Greenville County, according to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Abuse Services.

Not providing a nonaddictive, legal alternative to those narcotics doesn't make sense, Davis said.

"It's like we have blinders on," he said.