A bill to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina officially passed the Senate on third reading on Thursday, sending the reform measure to the House of Representatives for consideration.
While final passage in the Senate was expected after Wednesday’s initial bipartisan vote to advance the bill from Sen. Tom Davis (R) on second reading, Thursday’s voice vote means the legislation will now be formally transmitted to the other body of the bicameral legislature.
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 Davis redoubled his efforts to get the bill across the finish line, arguing that South Carolina voters are ready what he’s repeatedly called “the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country.”.
The senator said last month that House Speaker Jay Lucas (R) agreed to “allow the bill to go through the House process” if it advanced through the Senate, but a spokesperson for the speaker later told The Charleston Post and Courier that “Sen. Davis doesn’t speak for Speaker Lucas.”
Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said earlier this week that it was too early to comment on the proposal, as changes were still being made by lawmakers. “This is one that’s going to depend on a lot of things,” he told a local FOX station, adding that he’ll wait to see the final version before deciding whether he would potentially sign or veto the bill if if were to arrive on his desk.
As amended and passed in the Senate, S. 150 would allow patients with qualifying conditions to possess and purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. Smokable products, as well as home cultivation of cannabis by patients or their caretakers, would be prohibited. Simply possessing the plant form of cannabis could be punished as a misdemeanor.
Qualifying conditions for medical cannabis include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, ulcerative colitis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, autism, nausea in homebound or end-of-life patients, muscle spasms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Terminal patients with less than a year to live would also qualify. However, regulators would be authorized to add additional conditions in the future.
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.
“After seven long years of fighting, this Senate vote is truly an historic moment. It brings hope for so many who desperately need safe, legal access to medical cannabis,” Jill Swing, executive director of the S.C. Compassionate Care Alliance, said in a press release. “I can never thank Senator Davis enough for his tireless efforts. But I am also grateful for all members of the Senate whose careful discernment brought them to a place of support for the Compassionate Care Act. SC House, here we come!”
Medical marijuana would be subject to the state’s six percent sales tax, and local jurisdictions would be able to levy an additional tax.
The final Senate passage comes after weeks of floor debate, and the consideration of dozens of amendments.
While Davis contested several more restrictive proposed changes on the floor, he was amenable to certain amendments, including one approved revision that makes it so the medical marijuana law would sunset entirely at the end 2028. Lawmakers would have to take affirmative action for the program to continue into the next year.
The bill was also amendment to clarify that DUI laws still apply to cannabis, and patients who refuse to submit to a blood test if suspected of impaired driving would lose their license for six months. It would also be a misdemeanor for patients and caretakers to have an open container of cannabis in a vehicle unless it’s in the trunk, glove compartment or other sealed section.
Rather than have conventional medical marijuana dispensaries that are in place in other legal states, the bill stipulates that there would be so-called cannabis pharmacies. The facilities would be required to have a pharmacist on site at all times, and the South Carolina Board of Pharmacy would promulgate business regulations.
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People with felony-level drug convictions would also be prevented from participating in the new industry for a period of 10 years under the proposal.
In-state businesses would also receive licensing priority when the market in established, with the intent being to prevent multi-state operators from dominating the industry.
Under the bill, 75 percent of tax revenue after expenditures would go to the state’s general fund, with another 10 percent going to drug use disorder treatment service providers, five percent going to state law enforcement, and the remainder going to cannabis research and drug education.
For the initial rollout, regulators would approve 15 cannabis cultivators, 30 processing facilities, a cannabis pharmacy for every 20 pharmacies in the state, five testing laboratories and four cannabis transporters. Lawmakers, rather than regulators, would be authorized to approve additional license types.
Local governments could ban medical cannabis businesses from operating in their jurisdictions under the amended bill, but otherwise the it says that local land use and zoning burdens “should be no greater for a cannabis-based business than for any other similar business.”
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control would oversee licensing and other regulations of the new industry. A newly established Medical Cannabis Advisory Board would be in charge of adding or removing qualifying conditions. The board would meet at least once per year and be led by a governor-appointed chairperson.
“The veteran community is proud of the South Carolina Senate’s approval of our medical cannabis bill. Now let’s expedite this bill through the House of Representatives,” Cody Callerman, a military veteran and hemp cultivator, said. “My fellow veterans are long overdue for our freedom and choice of medical treatment.”
Davis has championed medical marijuana in South Carolina since 2014, and at recent rally, he 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.”
He’s also continued to push back against opposition to cannabis legalization from his own party, for example calling out an attack ad that was paid for by the South Carolina Republican Party.
The state GOP organization separately slammed a federal legalization bill from U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents South Carolina in Congress. And last month, cannabis opponents sent a mailer accusing Davis of wanting to turn the state into “one big pot party.”
A former White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump also recently called out his home state South Carolina Republican Party for opposing the medical marijuana bill medical marijuana. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s top aide for more than a year and a former congressman, called the legislation “something that merits discussion and reasoned analysis,” even if it’s not a proposal that is conventionally considered a conservative priority.
Davis referred to the maneuvers by his own party as “the elephant in the room” on the Senate floor as debate on the floor kicked off last month, saying he was offended by the misinformation and planned to rebut every misleading claim the group made.
“I’m going to go through every single legal argument that’s been put up there—lack of medical evidence, unintended social consequences—and take them all up and discuss them and refute them,” the senator said.
A poll released last February found that South Carolina voters support legalizing medical marijuana by a five-to-one ratio. But the state does not have a citizen-led initiative process that has empowered voters in other states to get the policy change enacted.
Support for medical marijuana legalization among South Carolina residents has been notably stable, as a 2018 Benchmark Research poll similarly found 72 percent support for the reform, including nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Republicans. Davis said last year that if the legislature didn’t advance the reform, he’d propose a bill to put the question of medical marijuana legalization to voters through a referendum.
Also in 2018, 82 percent of voters in the state’s Democratic primary election voted in favor of medical cannabis legalization in a nonbinding ballot advisory vote.
Lawmakers prefiled four marijuana measures for the 2019 session, but they did not advance.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.