South Carolina lawmakers and advocates aren’t giving up the push to legalize medical marijuana just yet, and they’re imploring leadership to take up a GOP-led reform bill ahead of a key legislative deadline this week.
At a press conference on Tuesday, supporters of the legislation from Sen. Tom Davis (R) stressed the urgency of getting the reform enacted this year, with a deadline set coming up on Thursday to get the bill out of the Senate and over to the House for consideration this year.
Davis gave an impassioned speech on the floor last week, disputing complaints from certain lawmakers that the bill was not adequately vetted to be placed on special order to be taken up.
“This is embarrassing that we can’t do this,” he said, pointing out that the S.C. Compassionate Care Act has been discussed in hearings over the course of eight years collectively, in more than a dozen subcommittees.
The bill most recently advanced through the Senate Medical Affairs Committee last month and an earlier version cleared the full Senate last session only to stall in the House over a procedural hiccup.
While the sponsor’s remarks gave the impression that the bill’s fate was sealed for the year, there’s could be a last-ditch effort to revive it with a motion before Thursday’s deadline.
“This isn’t the end. We hope to continue to work to pass this bill for the people of South Carolina,” Sen. Penry Gustafson (R) said at a press conference with supporters of the legislation on Tuesday. “I ask for people’s patience. I think it’s going to get through.”
Rep. Joe Bustos (R) also spoke in support of moving the issue forward.
“I urge our leadership to tackle this bill,” he said. “Get it passed and let’s get on with this.”
Sen. Mike Fanning (D) noted that time is running short to save the legislation.
“If the Senate doesn’t take action on this bill in 77 hours, it’s dead for the year,” he said at the press conference, at which military veterans and medical professionals also spoke.
If the measure doesn’t clear the Senate by Thursday, it could still pass the body later in the year but would not be eligible to be taken up on the House side until 2024, during the second half of the two-year session.
Answering media questions earlier today about the #MedicalMarijuana bill now pending on the South Carolina Senate calendar. pic.twitter.com/AkUmuwoMz1
— Tom Davis (@SenTomDavisSC) March 28, 2023
Davis said on Twitter on Tuesday that the bill is essentially “treading water” and that he will “keep trying to remove the impediments to letting it swim.”
Treading water, in this context, and I will keep trying to remove the impediments to letting it swim.
— Tom Davis (@SenTomDavisSC) March 28, 2023
Overall, the bill would allow patients to access cannabis from licensed dispensaries if they receive a doctor’s recommendation for the treatment of qualifying conditions.
Here are the main provisions of the proposal:
“Debilitating medical conditions” for which patients could receive a medical cannabis recommendation include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Crohn’s disease, autism, a terminal illness where the patient is expected to live for less than one year and a chronic illness where opioids are the standard of care, among others.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and Board of Pharmacy would be responsible for promulgating rules and licensing cannabis businesses, including dispensaries that would need to have a pharmacist on-site at all times of operation.
In an effort to prevent excess market consolidation, the bill has been revised to include language requiring regulators to set limits on the number of businesses a person or entity could hold more than five percent interest in, at the state-level and regionally.
A “Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” would be established, tasked with adding or removing qualifying conditions for the program. The legislation was revised from its earlier form to make it so legislative leaders, in addition to the governor, would be making appointments for the board.
Importantly, the bill omits language prescribing a tax on medical cannabis sales, unlike the last version. The inclusion of tax provisions resulted in the House rejecting the earlier bill because of procedural rules in the South Carolina legislature that require legislation containing tax-related measures to originate in that body rather than the Senate.
Smoking marijuana and cultivating the plant for personal use would be prohibited.
Doctors would be able to specify the amount of cannabis that a patient could purchase in a 14-day window, or they could recommend the default standard of 1,600 milligrams of THC for edibles, 8,200 milligrams for oils for vaporization and 4,000 milligrams for topics like lotions.
Edibles couldn’t contain more than 10 milligrams of THC per serving.
There would also be packaging and labeling requirements to provide consumers with warnings about possible health risks. Products couldn’t be packaged in a way that might appeal to children.
Patients could not use medical marijuana or receive a cannabis card if they work in public safety, commercial transportation or commercial machinery positions. That would include law enforcement, pilots and commercial drivers, for example.
Local governments would be able to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area, or set rules on policies like the number of cannabis businesses that may be licensed and hours of operation. DHEC would need to take steps to prevent over-concentration of such businesses in a given area of the state.
Lawmakers and their immediate family members could not work for, or have a financial stake in, the marijuana industry until July 2029, unless they recuse themselves from voting on the reform legislation.
DHEC would be required to produce annual reports on the medical cannabis program, including information about the number of registered patients, types of conditions that qualified patients and the products they’re purchasing and an analysis of how independent businesses are serving patients compared to vertically integrated companies.
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A poll released in November found that 78 percent of South Carolina adults, including a majority of Republicans, want to see cannabis legalized for medical purposes. Another 54 percent said that they’re in favor of recreational legalization.
Marijuana reform also played a role in the South Carolina gubernatorial race last year, which saw incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster (R) retain his seat over challenger Joe Cunningham, a former Democratic congressman.
McMaster attempted to dissuade voters from electing Cunningham, in part because of his opponent’s support for marijuana legalization.
Previously, Cunningham was unseated in his congressional reelection race in 2020 by now-Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who strongly supports cannabis legalization and introduced a bill to end prohibition in 2021.
In a post-election interview with Marijuana Moment in November, Mace weighed in on South Carolina cannabis policy, saying “it’s time for our state and move forward” with medical marijuana legalization and that the “vast majority of South Carolinians” back the reform.
After Cunningham came out with a plan to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational purposes, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick voiced opposition and said the Democratic candidate wants to “play with fire” by embracing the policy change. But notably, Davis came to Cunningham’s defense in 2021.
Davis said at the time that his own party’s stance, particularly as it concerns medical cannabis, is “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist.”
After Davis’s Senate-passed medical cannabis bill was defeated in a House committee, he tried another avenue for the reform proposal, but that similarly failed on procedural grounds.
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Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.