Mark Keel marijuana

South Carolina law enforcement division chief Mark Keel testified in opposition to the legalization of medical marijuana during a public hearing held by the S.C. Senate Medical Affairs Committee on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Screenshot

COLUMBIA — When Sam Fogle returned from Iraq after getting hit by a roadside bomb, he suffered from severe brain injuries and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The medication he was prescribed came with crippling side effects, but medical marijuana offers the ability to relieve him of his chronic pain.

He said it could do the same for many veterans like him.

"I love my state," Fogle testified Thursday about the Statehouse's medical marijuana effort. "I don't want to move out of my state to get the choices others have."

Then there's Mark Keel, the chief of South Carolina's Law Enforcement Division.

A longtime opponent of legalizing medical marijuana, Keel said he continues to believe that legalizing medical marijuana could lead to a spike in traffic fatalities and other dangerous outcomes, and he said S.C. should maintain its historic independent streak by declining to follow dozens of other states that have legalized medicinal use of the drug.

"South Carolina doesn't have to be like the other 33 states that's decided to go down that road and conduct social experiments on their citizens," Keel said. "If you vote yes for this bill... be prepared to open a Pandora's box of unintended consequences."

The disagreements, reiterated many times in different forms over hours of public testimony Thursday to the Senate's Medical Affairs Committee, highlighted the ongoing stalemate over whether South Carolina should become the latest state to allow for medical use of cannabis to treat chronic pain, epilepsy and other debilitating conditions.

With little to no chance of passing this year, supporters hope the ongoing pressure on the issue can help build momentum heading into the second year of the legislative session in 2020.

Many of those who testified have already pleaded with the committee to rule one way or another for years. Emily McSherry, the founder of Greenville nonprofit Cannabis Forward, said she hoped this year would not end with the same grave disappointment that previous sessions have.

"Please help me not to have to attend another funeral for one of our patients while we wait for access to this," McSherry said. "There is no other piece of legislation that is more worthy of your urgency than the Compassionate Care Act."

Physicians representing the South Carolina Medical Association argued scientific studies of marijuana remain insufficient. They said they fear putting doctors in the position of recommending a drug that the federal government continues to classify as illegal.

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Opponents pointed out that the state's drug and alcohol agency has found marijuana to be the second most commonly diagnosed chemical dependency in the state after alcohol.

The lead sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he has worked to make his bill as conservative as possible, with tight regulations reducing the possibility of medical marijuana being abused for recreational use — an effort he says is "reflective of South Carolinian values."

"While an overwhelming majority of South Carolinians want to empower doctors and put medicine in the hands of patients who need it, an equally overwhelming number of South Carolinians do not want there to be a loose law that can be abused," Davis said.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, suggested that a continued "wait and see" approach to the chance of federal Food and Drug Administration approval may no longer be tenable.

"If we sit around and wait on the FDA... I think we’re doing ourselves somewhat of a disservice," Verdin said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.