SC patients wait as lawmakers debate medical marijuana
COLUMBIA – The 8-year-old boy fidgeted with his hands as he stood and approached the microphone before a panel of South Carolina House members in late February.
Speaking for a bill that would allow medical marijuana use in the state, he got right to the point.
“I would like to talk about my sister,” he said. “She has an awful disease, called mitochondrial disease. And she has so many seizures. I have seen them before. They are awful. If we could just have medical marijuana to help her stop having them, that would be just great.”
His plea was among dozens heard by state lawmakers earlier this year as they once again debated the issue of allowing marijuana use to address those with chronic pain or a bevy of awful, debilitating diseases.
Legislators in the Senate and House held hearings, heard expert testimony, asked many questions, but ultimately neither chamber advanced legislation to the floor.
The two bills remain pending for next year. But leaders in the Republican-majority Legislature, while sympathetic to families pleading for help, are hesitant to buck law enforcement, whose leaders steadfastly oppose such legislation.
“I think we have a long way to go,” said Sen. Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, chairman of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee. “As long as law enforcement is opposed to it, it’s going to be very, very tough. If law enforcement is opposed to it, then I am opposed to it.”
But others say while they have problems and questions with the proposed bills, they believe lawmakers eventually should allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
“The reality is it does make a difference and we can’t turn a blind eye to that,” Rep. Katie Arrington, a Dorchester County Republican, told a House panel in March. “I won’t let this issue go away.”
Neither will Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and one of the chamber’s staunchest conservatives who has championed medical marijuana legislation in the Senate and authored a bill which eventually passed in 2014 that allows doctors to use cannabis oil to treat patients with epileptic seizures.
“There has been pushback from socially conservative politicians and they’ve won some battles, but those of us pushing for doctors — not politicians — to be the ones who decide what medicines their patients are able take will eventually win the war,” he says.
Some Republicans have spoken in favor of the legislation or joined as sponsors, including Sen. Paul Campbell of Berkeley County, Rep. Peter McKoy of Charleston, Rep. Eric Bedingfield, of Belton, Rep. Bill Herbkersman of Beaufort County, Rep. Jonathon Hill of Anderson County, Rep. Steven Wayne Long of Boiling Springs, Rep. Joshua Putnam of Anderson County, Rep. Josiah Magnuson of Spartanburg County, Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken, and Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort County.
The legislation would essentially allow doctors to recommend patients with debilitating illnesses to receive marijuana from a state-regulated system of dispensaries. Patients would have to register with the state and would receive cards authorizing their use of the drug. Doctors, patients and caregivers could not be prosecuted by the state, under the bills.
The bills would allow marijuana to be used for “debilitating medical conditions,” which include more than a dozen specific ailments or a chronic or debilitating condition that produces certain conditions, such as seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms, severe nausea or debilitating pain.
At least 28 states and the District of Columbia have authorized the medical use of marijuana in some form. But the federal government has not, and that is the rub for some lawmakers and for South Carolina law enforcement officials.
“I’m opposed to it and the South Carolina law enforcement community remains opposed to it,” said Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division. “We believe that if it’s going to be used for medicine it should be regulated just like any pharmaceutical drug. If and when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does the tests they do and evaluates it and says it’s not harmful and they pass off on it then we’ll all go away.”
A major concern, he says, is that approval of medical use of marijuana will lead to decriminalization of recreational use of the drug.
“We’ve seen it in other states,” he said. “We’ve talked to folks in other states and quite frankly, medical marijuana states that went to legalization, went to legalization because they could not regulate medical marijuana. It got so difficult to try and regulate.”
He thinks most of the states allow smokeable marijuana for chronic pain and pointed to an expert from Arizona who told senators that 72 percent of those in her state taking the drug for medical uses did so for chronic pain, a category he thinks is too broad. He said most of those are in the 18-35 age group, what he says is the healthiest demographic in society.
Only a small percentage of people get it for terminal illnesses, he said.
“It’s way too broad and I’ve expressed that to members of the General Assembly and to sponsors of the bill,” he said.
Experts and family members have countered that the drug is effective with pain, nausea, seizures and a variety of ailments and conditions, ranging from cancer to epilepsy to auto-immune disorders.
James Prevo, a Colorado chemist, told House lawmakers he moved to South Carolina recently to care for his mother, who was severely injured in an automobile accident in 1989 caused by a driver on opioids who had passed out. She broke her pelvis and both arms and legs, he said.
Doctors have given her a variety of painkillers that do not give her relief, he said.
“She has no answer. I have no answer,” he said, his voice quivering. “I want my mother to live longer.”
Jeff Moore, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, which opposes medical marijuana legislation, told House lawmakers he favors such legislation because of the difference it has made in his son, who served in the military in Iraq and returned with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing horrific deaths and suffering brain injuries. His condition led him to alcohol and attempts at suicide, he testified.
Then his son moved to Michigan and applied for a medical marijuana card. Two years later, Moore said, he has given up alcohol, has a high grade point average in college and is an elder in his church.
“Who would like to take that life away from him?” he asked.
Cathy Robeson told lawmakers her 12-year-old son used to suffer constant seizures and was prescribed dozens of medications that proved ineffective.
“He was taking so much medication he couldn’t wash his hands,” she said. “He was a zombie.”
The cannabis oil helped, she said, lengthening the time between seizures. But she said “he needs more than that. He needs the THC.” THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana and is not present in significant quantities in cannabis oil.
The subcommittee heard three hours of testimony, including hers, then voted unanimously to advance the bill.
But in a meeting of the full House Medical, Military and Municipal Affairs Committee the following month, lawmakers posed a bevy of questions and time ran out without any vote.
“We didn’t want to react too quick,” said Rep. Leon Howard, a Columbia Democrat and chairman of the panel, who said the bill will be debated again in January.
Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican and chairman of the Senate finance healthcare subcommittee who also serves on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee, said for him “there are more questions than there are answers” about the issue.
“Personally, I have compassion and care for those who it may be able to help,” he said. “But I have great reservations about the process of making it happen, even looking at states that have medical marijuana. I’m not comfortable supporting the legislation.”
Alexander said he knows more work will be done on the legislation but he’s not sure the bill will get through the process next year.
He said he would like to see some direction at the federal level before the state moves forward.
“I’m not sure it’s the right policy for South Carolina right now,” he said.
Howard said the consensus of his committee at the end of this year’s session in June was that the bill should be advanced to the floor.
But he said he believes law enforcement’s concerns should be addressed.
“We’re probably going to have to get their concerns answered,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that’s involved with that issue. We want to satisfy law enforcement. I’m sure they know things we don’t know. We don’t want the bad guys to take this as an opportunity to create more havoc.”
Howard still doesn’t see a consensus yet to pass the bill through the Legislature, “though that may change.”
That initially was true with the bill to allow cannabis oil. Davis managed to get a bill passed in the Senate that would allow trials but not actual distribution. Then the House passed a bill to allow medical use of the oil and the Senate eventually agreed.
The Senate Medical Affairs Committee defeated a medical marijuana bill in 2016.
But this is a new session and lawmakers, advocates and opponents agree the issue will not die.
“I think it is extremely worthy of discussion,” Howard said.v