South Carolina Senator Pushes For Medical Marijuana Vote Next Month

South Carolina Senator Pushes For Medical Marijuana Vote Next Month

“I’m committed to a medicinal cannabis program that is for the health and well-being of South Carolinians.”

By Jessica Holdman, South Carolina Daily Gazette

The medical marijuana debate is back at the South Carolina Statehouse and the Senate medical committee chairman wants a “redo.”

The latest iteration of legislation to legalize and regulate the prescription of cannabis to treat the symptoms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism and other debilitating diseases is currently stuck in the Senate.

Proponents are pushing for a vote early in the legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

Speaking to a room full of reporters a day ahead of the session, Senate Medical Affairs Chairman Danny Verdin was forceful in calling for senators to take it up and pass it. The Laurens Republican, while sitting beside one of the bill’s staunchest opponents, said he’d be “sorely disappointed” if the Senate left it to languish on the calendar.

“I’m committed to a medicinal cannabis program that is for the health and well-being of South Carolinians,” Verdin said.

Last February, Verdin successfully pushed for the bill to skip his committee and go straight to the Senate calendar for floor debate. And that’s where it’s been stuck. The objections of two Republicans have since blocked senators from considering it.

Sen. Tom Davis (R), who’s led a nine-year effort to legalize marijuana for medical use, hopes 2024 is the year it finally passes. For years, he’s tried to tweak the bill to address the opposition of law enforcement, led by State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. But Keel remains emphatic that he will not support regulating marijuana until the federal government makes it legal.

Davis contends his measure is “very conservative.” He believes it would make South Carolina’s law the most restrictive among states that allow marijuana for medical use; 38 states already do.

Under his bill, for example, smoking marijuana would remain illegal. Prescribed cannabis would have to be ingested through edibles or inhaled through vapes.

It limits legal cannabis growers to two acres, requires licenses for pharmacies allowed to fill prescriptions and sets qualifications for medical marijuana patients to receive cannabis cards.

It also creates an electronic patient registry. And it excludes anyone working in public safety, commercial transportation or with heavy machinery from legally partaking.

The Senate’s already passed the bill once.

Verdin’s committee first advanced it to the floor in 2021. But then, as it has over the last year, it got stuck on the calendar, until a supermajority of senators voted in February 2022 to give the bill special debate status, overruling objections. After three weeks of floor debate, it passed 28–15.

When it got to the House floor, however, it was thrown out on a technicality. A Republican opponent raised the point that any bill creating a tax must start in the House, and it was tossed without debate.

“We got a procedural trick played on us,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R-Edgefield).

Two years later, a nearly identical bill sponsored by Davis—minus the tax component—is again blocked on the Senate calendar. (Under Senate rules, a single senator can block debate. But a supermajority vote can remove it.)

The two Republicans with an objection holding it up this time include Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree (R-Little River). The former solicitor has called marijuana a “gateway drug” to the abuse of narcotics and said he worries those peddling medical marijuana would just be using it to make money off people with addictions.

Davis said it’s his goal to move the bill quickly through the Senate and send it to the House in early February, with hopes the House will take it up before that chamber’s budget debate.

Massey, who voted in favor of the bill in 2022, said a debate is likely.

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“This bill is about providing what South Carolinians want,” Davis said. “What they want is to empower doctors and to give patients access to medical treatments that the American Journal of Medicine right now has conclusively said is a benefit.”

But even if it passes the Senate a second time, it will face heavy opposition in the House.

A pair of House committee leaders voiced their opposition Monday.

“Once you open Pandora’s box, it’s open and you cannot close it,” said Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Seneca).

The chairman of the House Labor Commerce and Industry Committee pointed to other states that started with medical marijuana and later opened it up to recreational use.

Verdin waved off the argument that medical marijuana is just a portal to legalizing the drug for recreational use. He called on senators to “give our House colleagues the necessary chance to take this very significant step forward within the realm of legitimate, honest expansion of medical freedom.”

This story was first published by South Carolina Daily Gazette.

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