MMJ Advances In S.C. Senate

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South Carolina Senate, Columbia SC Photo: Shutterstock

COLUMBIA — South Carolina senators took a major step by approving a medical marijuana bill after three weeks of debate, sending the proposal to the House for the first time since the first attempt at medical cannabis legislation was introduced seven years ago.

Poked and prodded by lawmakers over two long days of debate, Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis’ bill will cross to the other chamber in a significantly watered-down version that he, as its sponsor, once described as the “most conservative” in the nation.

The latest version of the bill, passed by a 28-15 margin Feb. 9, reduces the allowable size of grow operations in South Carolina from 15 acres to 2 acres, while tightly controlling the types of facilities that will ultimately be able to fill prescriptions as well as the qualifications for medical marijuana patients to receive cannabis cards.

The bill would also limit the marketing and sale of cannabis products, and require grow operations and medical marijuana “pharmacies” — whose licenses would be tightly regulated and capped at three per county — to employ security agencies certified by the State Law Enforcement Division.

The legislation also carries strict penalties for doctors and patients caught falsifying records, as well as anti-corruption measures to prevent lawmakers from having a financial stake in medical cannabis operations in the state for the next decade.

While Davis long claimed he had the votes to pass the bill, some, like Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, said they were unsure of where they stood on the bill until an hour before the vote.

Debate on the measure stretched over several weeks, and elicited supporters as well as protesters from across the state. Davis, the most visible Republican advocate for medical cannabis, took more than a week to present his bill. Numerous public officials — including U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Charleston, state Republican Party officials, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham — descended on the Statehouse to either support or oppose the bill throughout the process.

In the final week of debate, lawmakers spent several, long-running days contemplating well over 50 amendments to the bill, most of which came from a handful of conservative lawmakers.

While many were unique, each had similar goals, seeking either to dissuade the recreational consumption of medical marijuana or eliminating the possibility of building out the infrastructure necessary to cultivate a recreational cannabis industry on the scale of recreational states like Colorado or California.

Some lawmakers, like Sen. Billy Garrett, R-Greenwood, raised concerns about the fact cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, and pushed for changes to eliminate flavored products like cannabis-infused cookies or gummies from the program, saying that medical marijuana should resemble and taste like medicine.

Others, like Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, pushed amendments to limit the maximum amount of THC patients would be allowed per day, alongside amendments imposing stronger criminal penalties on patients and doctors who abused the medical marijuana program.

Her motivation, she told colleagues, was to restrict children’s ability to gain access to the illegal psychoactive as well as concern over opening the door to large cannabis firms, which have grown to great political power in Western states and pockets of the Northeast.

“They will pick us off one by one with their money because they will have already invested so much in the state of South Carolina,” she said.

Most of those efforts to amend the bill failed, however, due to tight restrictions on access already in the legislation.

Other amendments like those sponsored by Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, sought to give local, established farmers and producers in the state’s existing industrial hemp industry a competitive advantage over out-of-state firms in receiving grow licenses.

There were also efforts to dismantle the bill entirely. Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Little River, introduced an amendment that would have effectively gutted the bill in favor of alternative legislation authorizing South Carolina to pursue a clinical study of medical marijuana, despite extensive peer-reviewed evidence supporting its therapeutic benefits.

Hembree said it was an effort to take a cautious approach to medical cannabis and avert the creation of facilities like grow houses and distribution networks necessary for full-blown recreational programs.

“We stand at the edge of ‘Big Pot,’” he said on the Senate floor. “It will be a permanent, large-scale marijuana industry in South Carolina.”

Lawmakers ultimately rejected Hembree’s amendment by a 26-18 vote after lengthy arguments from Davis, who argued his bill was so tightly regulated that a jump to recreational cannabis would be impossible.

He also argued Hembree’s amendment — pitched as a means to access the drug without breaking federal law — would likely deprive thousands of potential medical cannabis patients from accessing the drug, without providing any substantial benefit to doctors’ understanding of the drug.

“Clinical trials are not to provide access,” Davis said. “They are to collect data.”

The bill will now be subject to a perfunctory vote in the Senate on Feb. 10, after which it will go to the House for further debate.