South Carolina’s Senate kicked off debate on a medical marijuana bill on Wednesday, marking the first time in the Republican sponsor’s eight-year legalization effort that his legislation has made it to the chamber floor.
The body is expected to hold several full legislative days’ worth of discussion on the measure before taking a vote on it.
The Compassionate Care Act was prefiled in late 2020 and passed out of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee last March, but a lone senator blocked it from reaching the chamber floor in 2021. Since then, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Davis (R), has redoubled his efforts to get the bill across the finish line.
“What I’ve attempted to do over the last several months is make the intellectual argument,” Davis said, “make the argument based on logic, make the argument based on the law, make the argument based on what these empirical studies show.”
Davis spent much of Wednesday’s floor session answering questions from critics who appeared to have little understanding of medical marijuana programs in other states. He emphasized that the new program would be relatively limited in scope, forbidding patients from smoking or even possessing the plant form of marijuana and restricting qualifying conditions to only those that evidence shows cannabis can help.
“One of the things that I decided early on was that this was going to be a different kind of medical cannabis bill,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be like the medical cannabis bills in the 36 other states that have medical cannabis laws, because I wanted it to be a very tightly regulated medical bill” rather than a back door to full legalization.
As the result of an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R), Davis said last week, the bill was made a special order, meaning that now that senators have begun debate on the measure, they will have to vote on it before taking up other legislation.
Davis also said House Speaker Jay Lucas (R) has agreed to “allow the bill to go through the House process” if it advances through the Senate, although a spokesperson for Lucas later told the Charleston Post and Courier that “Sen. Davis doesn’t speak for Speaker Lucas.”
If the bill proceeds as Davis has described, the senator said he expected “that we’re going to be standing here in three or four months celebrating a bill signing” with Gov. Henry McMaster (R).
Davis has emphasized the bill’s conservative approach to medical marijuana, more limited than legislation that Mississippi lawmakers sent to their governor’s desk on Wednesday. Advocating for the plan last session, the South Carolina senator repeatedly called it “the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country.”
“I understand what South Carolinians want,” he said at the time. “They want to empower doctors, they want to help patients, they do not want recreational use.”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Davis said he was willing to entertain further amendments to tighten the bill, for example by finding a way to more closely involve state-licensed pharmacists in dispensing medical marijuana.
As drafted, the bill, S. 150, would allow patients with qualifying conditions to possess and purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would impose two-week sales limits on patients, letting them buy up to 4,000 milligrams of THC in cannabis-infused topicals, 1,600 milligrams in edible products or 8,200 milligrams in oils meant for vaporization.
Smokable products, as well as home cultivation of cannabis by patients or their caretakers, would be forbidden. Patients caught smoking small amounts of marijuana would be subject to a fine of up to $500 for a first offense. Subsequent offenses would carry a misdemeanor criminal penalty and up to 30 days in jail.
While more qualifying conditions could be added in the future, the bill specifies cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, ulcerative colitis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, autism, nausea in homebound or end-of-life patients, muscle spasms and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) provided a patient can establish they experienced one or more traumatic events. Patients diagnosed with less than one year to live could also qualify.
Notably, the bill would also allow access among patients with “any chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition for which an opioid is currently or could be prescribed by a physician based on generally accepted standards of care,” for example severe or persistent pain.
Medical marijuana would be subject to the state’s 6 percent sales tax, though the bill specifies that “no other tax may be imposed on the purchase of cannabis or cannabis products,” including by local governments. After funding the new program’s costs, 90 percent of revenue would go to the state’s general fund, with the remainder split up among research to detect drug-impaired drivers (3 percent), drug safety education (2 percent) and separate university research into cannabis dosing, efficacy, side-effects and related subjects.
For the initial rollout, regulators would approve 15 licenses for vertically integrated marijuana businesses that would control production, distribution and sales. More than a hundred dispensaries would be licensed under the bill. Licenses would also be granted to independent testing laboratories.
Local governments could set a limit on the number of medical cannabis businesses in their jurisdiction but could not ban them entirely. Land use and zoning burdens “should be no greater for a cannabis-based business than for any other similar business,” the bill says.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control would oversee licensing and other regulations. A newly established Medical Cannabis Advisory Board would be in charge of adding qualifying conditions. The advisory board would consist of the department director as well members appointed by the governor: doctors, a research scientist with expertise in cannabis medicine, a pharmacist, a patient, a parent of a minor patient and one representative of a licensed cannabis establishment.
Davis has championed medical marijuana in South Carolina since 2014 and at a rally last week brought out a binder that he said contained eight years of research into the issue. He said he would use the information to “take on every single argument that has been raised in opposition to this bill, and I’m going to show that they cannot stand in the way of facts and evidence.”
The senator even came to the defense of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the state, former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), after Cunningham campaigned on cannabis legalization and drew criticism from the state GOP chairman for wanting to “play with fire.” Chairman Drew McKissick said at the time that organization opposed “any” effort to end prohibition.
In a now-deleted tweet, Davis called the statement from his party “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist.”
Last week, the state GOP paid to circulate a message from a sheriff attacking Davis’s bill.