South Carolina’s Senate gave preliminary approval to a medical marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday.

If the legislation clears a forthcoming third reading vote for final passage, which is expected on Thursday, it will formally proceed to the House of Representatives.

Senators, who spent weeks debating the legislation and considering dozens of proposed amendments, voted 28-15 on second reading passage Wednesday evening.

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.

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, arguing that South Carolina voters are ready what he’s repeatedly called “the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country.”.

Davis said last month that House Speaker Jay Lucas (R) has agreed to “allow the bill to go through the House process” if it advances through the Senate, but a spokesperson for Lucas later told the Charleston Post and Courier that “Sen. Davis doesn’t speak for Speaker Lucas.”

The bill, S. 150, in its current form 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 forbidden. Merely possessing the plant form of cannabis could be punished as a misdemeanor.

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.

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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. Local governments were initially prohibited from adding further taxes of their own, but an amendment from Sen. Sandy Senn (R) removed that restriction.

Senators spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday’s floor sessions discussing dozens of amendments to the legislation, taking action on some while tabling or carrying over others.

Davis successfully urged rejection of some of the more hostile proposals, though he embraced other restrictions in the name of getting the bill passed. Under one amendment approved Tuesday with the sponsor’s support, for example, 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.

Among other new restrictions adopted in amendments, senators altered the bill’s language around medical marijuana and driving to clarify that DUI laws still apply and add a provision that 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.

Further changes did away with dispensaries under the bill’s language and instead creating so-called cannabis pharmacies. The facilities would need to have a pharmacist on site at all times, and the South Carolina Board of Pharmacy would promulgate business regulations.

That sweeping amendment, which Davis eventually backed, also revised the bill such that only physicians could recommend cannabis, rather than physician assistants and some nurses as allowed in previous versions of the legislation. A later amendment specified that retired law enforcement, former military or another qualified agency provide security to cannabis pharmacies.

Other new restrictions say that doctors who recommend cannabis would need to independently verify the qualifying diagnosis with the patient’s treating physician, and that cannabis cultivation centers could not be multi-level facilities. People with felony-level drug convictions would also be prevented from participating in the new industry for a period of 10 years.

Another change, dubbed the South Carolina First amendment, would give in-state businesses extra points in the state’s cannabis licensing process in an effort to prioritize them over larger, multi-state businesses that supporters said might otherwise dominate the market. Yet another amendment would clarify that state-licensed cannabis businesses could obtain cannabis only from other in-state businesses.

Lawmakers held a lengthy debate on an amendment that would have replaced the main patient access provisions of the bill with a limited program of clinical trials on medical cannabis’s effects, but it was tabled. A revised version of the amendment was reintroduced later to create a complementary system of clinical trials that would exist alongside the general program, a change senators approved.

Other adopted changes adjusted the makeup of the program advisory board, removed qualified immunity for doctors who recommend cannabis, restricted certain shapes of edibles in an effort to reduce their appeal to children, required cannabis businesses require liability coverage of at least $1 million and mandate that the state annually publish details on qualified patients by age group and type of debilitating condition. Another prohibits members of the General Assembly who vote on the cannabis bill, as well as their direct family members, from owning or benefiting financially from a medical marijuana business.

Amendments to the bill made last year in committee, meanwhile, were formally adopted on the Senate floor late last month. Those made a number of small changes to the proposal, for example allowing visiting patients with medical marijuana cards from other states to access South Carolina dispensaries. Another clarified that legalization would not require health plans to cover cannabis.

Revenue allocation would also change slightly as the result of recent amendments. Under the amended 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, 5 percent going to state law enforcement, and the remainder going to cannabis research and drug education.

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 cannabis pharmacies would be allowed under the bill. Licenses would also be granted to independent testing laboratories.

The bill initially allowed state regulators to add other license types, but an amendment adopted Wednesday made it so only elected lawmakers could do that.

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. Under amendments adopted this week, it would meet at least once per year and be led by a governor-appointed chairperson.

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.”

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 state GOP.

The state Republican 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 calling 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 week, 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.

As debate on the bill kicked off in the Senate this session, Davis said that after years of effort, even seeing his bill advance to the chamber floor was a victory.

“If you pound at the door long enough, if you make your case, if the public is asking for something, the state Senate owes a debate,” he told the Charleston Post and Courier. “The people of South Carolina deserve to know where their elected officials stand on this issue.”

Congress Briefed On Federal Courts’ Diverging Opinions On Medical Marijuana Protection Rider

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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