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Medical cannabis bill advances in SC Senate with time running out to pass it this year

www.postandcourier.com March 31, 2021
Medical cannabis bill advances in SC Senate with time running out to pass it this year

COLUMBIA — A bill to legalize medical use of cannabis in South Carolina took a key step forward March 31, advancing to the state Senate floor but with time running out to get the bill moving before the end of the session.In a 9-5 vote, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee approved the bill. The full Senate would likely need to pass it by the end of next week in order to give the House enough time to consider it before the 2021 term concludes in mid-May.The vote followed an impassioned, 25-minute speech from state Sen. Tom Davis, a longtime advocate of medical cannabis who has watched his bill repeatedly fail to cross the legislative finish line in previous sessions.Davis entered 2021 more hopeful after four additional states voted in favor of medical cannabis last year, including Mississippi."There's a moral imperative on our part to empower physicians to allow them to let their patients take cannabis if, in that doctor's medical opinion, it can be a therapeutic benefit," said Davis, R-Beaufort. "We constantly hear 'follow the science.' The science here is overwhelming."Davis described his bill, S.150, as "the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country" and thanked critics who he said helped him tighten the bill to seek to address some of their specific concerns, even if they remained opposed to the general concept.Among other restrictions, the bill would require physicians to have in-person meetings with their patients before prescribing cannabis, look into a patient's history of illness or substance abuse and develop an extensive written treatment plan."This bill requires a doctor to so much more than just simply prescribe it," Davis said. "It requires that doctor to be an effective gatekeeper."Only patients with a debilitating medical conditions specifically listed in the bill — including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, Crohn's disease, sickle cell anemia, autism or ulcerative colitis — would qualify for the program.In another bid to satisfy critics that include major law enforcement leaders, Davis also noted his bill would not include smoking marijuana as one of the permissible medical forms of consumption."I took a lot of heat from — no pun intended — the grassroots on this," Davis quipped. But he said he wanted to have a tightly regulated bill, noting that violating the restrictions in the bill would carry substantial penalties as a felony crime.Because senators had already extensively debated the measure for several years, the bill skipped the subcommittee level this session and went straight to committee. Lawmakers were initially scheduled to debate it earlier in March, but that meeting was canceled due to inclement weather.Several senators, including the chamber's President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, and Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, spoke against the measure, saying ongoing opposition from the state's medical association and law enforcement made them hesitant to move forward."I think there are some good aspects probably of medical marijuana, but there are also some negative aspects, some unintended consequences, and I think at this point I'm more concerned with that," Johnson said.State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, said she also remained concerned that patients could fake illnesses in order to get a cannabis prescription. But she added that, in deference to Davis, she would not seek to block the bill from coming out of the committee and would explain her opposition during the Senate floor debate.Other opposing senators cited the fact that the federal government still classifies marijuana as an illegal drug. "Our federal government says we cannot dispense medical marijuana at this time," said state Sen. Billy Garrett, R-Greenwood. "I don't want us to be a sanctuary state."Even if the bill passes the Senate and House, it would still need to overcome a final hurdle in Gov. Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general who has long echoed concerns from law enforcement officials about the bill.But in an interview with The Post and Courier last week, McMaster cracked open the door to the possibility that he could come around to the idea after extensive conversations with Davis about it. "He makes a very convincing argument," McMaster said of Davis. "I try to keep an open mind. There may be a way to do it, I don't know. But I'm open to hearing more about it because it's clear that it alleviates a lot of suffering. The trick is how to keep that from turning loose marijuana production in the state that would cause damage."


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