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South Carolina Senate Continues Debate On Medical Marijuana Bill, With Lawmakers Clashing Over Changes From Earlier Version

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South Carolina’s Senate continued its discussion of a medical marijuana legalization bill on Thursday, with lawmakers clashing over whether the current version of the legislation contains major differences from an earlier iteration that the body passed in 2022 but which later stalled in the House over a procedural hiccup.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Davis (R), would allow medical cannabis access for patients with certain health conditions.

Sen. Greg Hembree (R), who opposes the reform, held the floor for over an hour and half, arguing that the legislation contains more than 40 substantive changes from the earlier version and should therefore not be rushed to passage.

Among other issues, he pointed to provisions on pharmacists, vertical integration of businesses and security at medical cannabis facilities as not being identical to what the body approved two years ago.

Davis, however, said that “some misimpressions may have been formed” about how the legislation has evolved over time.

“While there may be substantive changes there, they are substantive changes that I think make it even more conservative,” he said, noting that he did alter language in the bill based on floor amendments that were adopted in 2022 in order to “make the will of this body clear, because amendments that were drafted off the floor weren’t clear.”

Senators will take the bill back up when they convene next Tuesday, with Davis saying he would spend the weekend to preparing a side-by-side analysis showing the differences in provisions between the current bill and the earlier measure.

The Senate last week had failed to advance the measure to floor debate, falling short on a vote that required two-thirds support. But on Tuesday, lawmakers voted again and came up 23–13 to give the bill a special order slot and keep it in play for the 2024 session.

Davis said during an initial debate on the bill on Wednesday that his goal has always been to “come up with the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country that empowered doctors to help patients—but at the same time tied itself to science, to addressing conditions for which there’s empirically based data saying that cannabis can be of medical benefit.”

“I think when this bill passes—and I hope it does pass—it’s going to be the template for any state that truly simply wants to empower doctors and power patients and doesn’t want to go down the slippery slope” to adult-use legalization, he said. “I think it can actually be used by several states that maybe regret their decision to allow recreational use, or they may be looking to tighten up their medical laws so that it becomes something more stringent.”

Overall, the bill would allow patients to access cannabis from licensed dispensaries if they receive a doctor’s recommendation for the treatment of qualifying conditions, which include several specific ailments as well as terminal illnesses and chronic diseases where opioids are the standard of care.

On Wednesday, members adopted an amendment that clarifies the bill does not require landlords or people who control property to allow vaporization of cannabis products.

As of Thursday, there were at least nine additional amendments pending consideration.

Here are the main provisions of the proposal: 

  • “Debilitating medical conditions” for which patients could receive a medical cannabis recommendation include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Crohn’s disease, autism, a terminal illness where the patient is expected to live for less than one year and a chronic illness where opioids are the standard of care, among others.
  • The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and Board of Pharmacy would be responsible for promulgating rules and licensing cannabis businesses, including dispensaries that would need to have a pharmacist on-site at all times of operation.
  • In an effort to prevent excess market consolidation, the bill has been revised to include language requiring regulators to set limits on the number of businesses a person or entity could hold more than five percent interest in, at the state-level and regionally.
  • A “Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” would be established, tasked with adding or removing qualifying conditions for the program. The legislation was revised from its earlier form to make it so legislative leaders, in addition to the governor, would be making appointments for the board.
  • Importantly, the bill omits language prescribing a tax on medical cannabis sales, unlike the last version. The inclusion of tax provisions resulted in the House rejecting the earlier bill because of procedural rules in the South Carolina legislature that require legislation containing tax-related measures to originate in that body rather than the Senate.
  • Smoking marijuana and cultivating the plant for personal use would be prohibited.
  • The legislation would sunset eight years after the first legal sale of medical cannabis by a licensed facility in order to allow lawmakers to revisit the efficacy of the regulations.
  • Doctors would be able to specify the amount of cannabis that a patient could purchase in a 14-day window, or they could recommend the default standard of 1,600 milligrams of THC for edibles, 8,200 milligrams for oils for vaporization and 4,000 milligrams for topics like lotions.
  • Edibles couldn’t contain more than 10 milligrams of THC per serving.
  • There would also be packaging and labeling requirements to provide consumers with warnings about possible health risks. Products couldn’t be packaged in a way that might appeal to children.
  • Patients could not use medical marijuana or receive a cannabis card if they work in public safety, commercial transportation or commercial machinery positions. That would include law enforcement, pilots and commercial drivers, for example.
  • Local governments would be able to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area, or set rules on policies like the number of cannabis businesses that may be licensed and hours of operation. DHEC would need to take steps to prevent over-concentration of such businesses in a given area of the state.
  • Lawmakers and their immediate family members could not work for, or have a financial stake in, the marijuana industry until July 2029, unless they recuse themselves from voting on the reform legislation.
  • DHEC would be required to produce annual reports on the medical cannabis program, including information about the number of registered patients, types of conditions that qualified patients and the products they’re purchasing and an analysis of how independent businesses are serving patients compared to vertically integrated companies.

After Davis’s Senate-passed medical cannabis bill was blocked in the House in 2022, he tried another avenue for the reform proposal, but that similarly failed on procedural grounds.

The lawmaker has called the stance of his own party, particularly as it concerns medical marijuana, “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist.”

Meanwhile, a poll released last year found that a strong majority of South Carolina adults support legalizing marijuana for both medical (76 percent) and recreational (56 percent) use—a finding that U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) has promoted.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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