COLUMBIA — Debate on legalizing medical marijuana in South Carolina will start on the Senate floor this week, representing a Statehouse first in an eight-year effort.
It’s a vote Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has been fighting for since launching the effort in 2015.
“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,” Davis told The Post and Courier, who wants an up or down vote. “The people of South Carolina deserve to know where their elected officials stand on this issue.”
Senators decided unanimously Jan. 20 to put the controversial proposal on priority status, guaranteeing a vote in the chamber. Senators can’t move on to other legislation until they either approve or kill the bill dubbed the “Compassionate Care Act,” which would enable patients to legally use cannabis.
Last year actually marked the second time the Senate Medical Affairs Committee advanced his bill to the Senate floor. But after getting through the committee process in 2018, opposition blocked a floor debate from ever happening. The 2021 session closed last May with GOP leadership promising Davis he’d get a vote this year.
Davis has spearheaded the effort to allow South Carolinians to use marijuana as medicine since 2014, when legislators passed his bill allowing limited use of CBD, a non-psychoactive oil derived from the plant. The conservative senator took up the cause to help a constituent’s then-6-year-old granddaughter, who could suffer hundreds of seizures daily despite medication.
The week ahead
The promised debate, expected to begin Jan. 25 or 26, gives the bill the best shot yet of South Carolina joining the 36 states already allowing marijuana as medicine. U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Charleston, an advocate of medical marijuana, plans to appear with Davis at the Statehouse on Tuesday the 25th.
Davis is confident a majority of senators agree with him, and that support will only grow as he makes his case at the podium.
He contends he’s crafted legislation that would create the most conservative medical marijuana program in the country as a result of continued opposition from law enforcement, most notably State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who’s highly respected in the Statehouse.
Davis says his bill would not lead to acceptance of recreational use, though Keel still believes it will.
Under Davis’ bill, smoking marijuana would remain illegal. Instead, it would permit ingesting or using cannabis through products like ointments, creams, oils, sprays, patches, and vaporizers. Patients could get up to a two-week supply at a time.
A range of “debilitating medical conditions” would allow patients to legally partake, including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, glaucoma, and any chronic pain for which opioids would otherwise be prescribed. Supporters contend marijuana is a better option than highly addictive opioids.
The bill, Senate 150, requires products to be tested and labeled and for dispensaries to go through a licensing process every two years.
It would also require dispensaries to contract with a state-licensed pharmacist, physician assistant or clinical practice nurse — an olive branch to opponents concerned about a lack of standards from dispensary to dispensary.
In 2019, anonymous mailers ridiculed Davis and accused him of wanting to turn the state “into one big pot party.”
But advocates believe popular opinion is on their side. A December poll of 300 registered voters by the Cannabis Alliance for South Carolina found 54 percent of voters support legalizing marijuana, with just 14 percent on the fence. Support for legalizing marijuana increased substantially when voters were informed of the specifics of Davis’ bill, rising 13 percentage points.
However, opinion was clearly split on party lines. While polling highly among Democrats (55 percent) and independents (68 percent), medical marijuana’s favorability remains at just 41 percent among Republicans, though just 38 percent of the voters polled opposed legalization outright.
Many in the mix, the pollsters noted, remained undecided — a sign they could be convinced to support it.
“This isn’t the ‘go-to-the-mat’ issue it used to be with South Carolinians,” said Logan McVey, an associate with Starboard Communications, which conducted the poll.
Opinion has been softening in the Statehouse in recent years as well. When the bill first passed Medical Affairs in 2018, it did so with the support of former South Carolina Sheriff’s Association president Jeff Moore, who said he was swayed by his son’s experience with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Former state Rep. Eric Bedingfield led the effort in the House after his eldest son’s six-year struggle with opioid addiction ended with an overdose, saying he believed it could help others hem their additions.
Like Davis, state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown said he was moved by advocate Jill Swing and her daughter.
“I was vehemently opposed to medical marijuana in South Carolina,” he said during a news conference Jan. 19. “I thought, ‘This is the slippery slope. This is the avenue to recreational marijuana. This is what every pothead dreams of.'”
But with Swing’s daughter, he said, he saw a young patient who immediately stopped convulsing with marijuana, a treatment so effective, Swing was willing to risk getting arrested.
“They’ve been treated unfairly,” Goldfinch said. “And it’s time for South Carolina to get righteous and treat them fairly.”
No guarantees of success
The legislation still has numerous, prominent opponents.
On Jan. 19, the South Carolina Republican Party shared a statement from South Carolina Sheriffs Association president Kevin Tolson opposing the bill, describing it as a “dangerous” proposal that could lead to more traffic accidents and increase the potential for financial crimes involving marijuana businesses.
“I understand supporters of this bill are seeking to bring comfort and relief to friends and family members who are suffering from debilitating illnesses,” Tolson wrote. “But I can’t endorse or even ignore the attempt to provide relief through illegal methods, especially when those attempts will jeopardize public safety.”
Others have pushed for Davis’ legislation to be considerably pared down.
In a January rally at the Statehouse with several other Christian lobbying groups, Palmetto Family Council president David Wilson — who previously lobbied for Swing’s group Compassionate SC — named defeating medical marijuana one of its eight legislative priorities this year.
Wilson, who said his opinion has shifted, said he and the council believe medical marijuana should be available only through cannabis-based medications dispersed through a licensed pharmacist, rather than by creating an industry that could be converted to recreational production.
That medication, he said, should also be FDA-approved, which cannabis is not.
Instead, federal law still puts marijuana at the same level as cocaine and heroin.
“You’re creating a whole system of growth of farms and dispensaries,” Wilson said. “It takes one more vote of the state Legislature to flip the switch, and we go from medical marijuana to recreational marijuana. We don’t want that in South Carolina.”
Even if the bill passes the Senate, its fate in the House is far from certain. Similar bills have never made it to that chamber’s floor. Plus, it could face a veto by Gov. Henry McMaster.
Davis said in the news conference he’d received a commitment from House Speaker Jay Lucas that the bill would be allowed to move through the committee process. However, a spokeswoman for Lucas denied the speaker had given any such guarantee.
“Sen. Davis doesn’t speak for Speaker Lucas,” spokeswoman Nicolette Walters said. “Speaker Lucas looks forward to watching the Senate next week.”