Medical marijuana in SC likely dead, again, as House lets clock run out

Rep. Sylleste Davis, R-Moncks Corner, speaks during a Medical Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. (Screenshot of SCETV legislative livestream)

COLUMBIA — A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina is almost certainly dead for the year after a House panel made no decision on it Tuesday, as news the federal government is reclassifying cannabis raised a whole new set of questions to a proposal that’s failed repeatedly for a decade.

After hours of testimony Tuesday, the special House committee created to consider the proposal adjourned without voting on the bill, which the Senate passed in February on a 24-19 vote. It was the panel’s second and likely last meeting of the year.

Lawmakers have only five working days left in the regular session. A special session is guaranteed but is limited to negotiations on the budget and legislation cleared by both chambers by 5 p.m. May 9.

The chances of the House passing its own version before then are slim to none, especially with no other meeting of the Medical Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee scheduled and the added questions of the federal government’s actions.

February marked the second time in two years senators passed a medical marijuana bill. The last attempt failed on the House floor before debate even began — thrown out on a point of order that the Senate bill raised a sales tax, and constitutionally, legislation that raises revenue must start in the House.

The version passed by the Senate this year had no tax.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has touted the bill he’s been pushing for nine years as the most restrictive in the country. It decriminalized the drug only for people with certain conditions — such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder — who could eat, vape or apply cannabis as a lotion.

Under Davis’ bill, smoking a joint would remain illegal. And businesses would be allowed to prohibit employees from using marijuana, even for medical reasons. People working in some fields, such as public safety and trucking, would not be allowed to get a medical card.

But opponents argued the seed-to-sale tracking that’s supposed to ensure use is limited to medical purposes actually created the framework for a full-scale marijuana industry and opened the door to legalizing recreational use in South Carolina.

Federal rules

Complicating matters was the Biden administration moving forward Tuesday with plans to remove marijuana from a list of the most dangerous, addictive drugs.

The move would take marijuana from Schedule I, the tier with heroin and LSD, to Schedule III, the category for regulated-but-legal drugs including testosterone and Tylenol with codeine. Schedule III drugs are generally available with a prescription.

The proposal, which still needs to go through several levels of review, does not legalize marijuana nationwide. Instead, it acknowledges that marijuana has medical uses and a low potential for abuse.

Committee Chairwoman Sylleste Davis said she was unsure how it might affect the bill or representatives’ opinions of it. The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t even confirm the reports until after the meeting was underway.

“We’re going to have to do some homework and evaluate where that puts us and whether that may or may not affect this legislation,” the Moncks Corner Republican said.

While marijuana is illegal under federal law, the federal government has barred the U.S. Department of Justice from enforcing that law since the Obama administration, leaving states to decide.

But law enforcement officials in South Carolina have remained adamantly opposed.

A chief critic has been Mark Keel, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, who has long opposed the idea of an illicit drug being considered medicine. He has said his position would not change until the federal government approves its use and a doctor can write a real prescription.

He repeated to the committee last week that he wouldn’t support the bill until the federal Food and Drug Administration gives cannabis products the go-ahead.

“The day the FDA approves it, you’ll never see me downtown again” to testify against medical marijuana, Keel told the panel. “I’ll never speak before another committee.”

The debate

Keel, who spent a decade in SLED’s narcotics unit, warned that drug use of any kind can be dangerous.

“I was in many homes and saw the devastation in the homes of what marijuana does to parents and the impact that it has on children who are living in homes with parents who are routinely using marijuana,” Keel said.

The state’s top cop asked lawmakers to add caps on how much THC, the psychoactive chemical found in cannabis, would be allowed in each dose if they did choose to move forward.

Law enforcement from across the state echoed his concerns. Allowing medical marijuana could make it easier for people to get the drug recreationally, putting it in the hands of more citizens, Greenville Sheriff Hobart Lewis told lawmakers.

“Legalizing cannabis at this point would only exacerbate existing challenges and endanger the safety of our citizens,” Lewis said.

On the other hand, doctors and researchers contended that marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for certain disorders, such as the ones listed in the bill.

Cannabis is often safer than other treatments, such as highly addictive opioids, said Prakash Nagarkatti, a University of South Carolina professor who has been studying medical uses of marijuana for years.

“You know what happens when people start taking opioids,” Nagarkatti told lawmakers.

People with medical conditions covered under the bill told the panel that medical marijuana changed their life.

Charleston chef Orlando Pagan started using medical marijuana legally in California to treat his multiple sclerosis, a disease causing people’s immune system to attack their brain and spinal cord. The first time he tried cannabis, he slept without spasms for the first time in weeks, he said.

“For the first time, I began to feel hopeful about living with the chronic illness we all know has no cure,” Pagan said.

People desperate to treat their diseases or relieve their pain are already using marijuana, said Jill Swing, president of SC Compassionate Care Alliance. After realizing cannabis was the only treatment that relieved her daughter’s severe epilepsy prescriptions weren’t helping, Swing began buying marijuana illegally.

Despite her best efforts, she knew she was running the risk of getting products laced with other drugs, possibly even deadly fentanyl, she said.

“Some of these drugs, we didn’t know what we were getting,” Swing said through tears.

Stories from both sides of the issue hit home with some of the representatives.

Rep. Mark Smith, R-Daniel Island, said he didn’t support legalizing marijuana across the board, but he couldn’t ignore the people who said it helped them.

“It is impossible not to empathize with the stories that we hear from families who are oftentimes in end-of-life situations and dealing with chronic issues and seizure issues,” Smith said.

That said, Smith questioned whether lawmakers should come back to the issue next year and work on tightening up its restrictions even more.

“Is there a path or a lane that truly addresses the issue that’s tight as a tick? That doesn’t create a gateway to recreational marijuana in the state?” Smith asked Keel. “I have to believe that there is.”

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