Military veterans are pushing lawmakers to back medical cannabis as a March 18 Senate hearing approaches.
By John Haughey | The Center Square
Health care advocates, criminal justice reform proponents, budget hawks and veterans groups are among bipartisan supporters hoping the seventh time is the charm when it comes to South Carolina establishing a legal medical marijuana program.
This year’s version of the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act, Senate Bill 150, has been filed by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who has authored several of the similar bills that have failed since 2015.
SB 150 was introduced on January 12 and is scheduled for its debut hearing on March 18 before the Senate Medical Affairs Committee. Its House companion, House Bill 3361, filed by Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, has 18 co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee, where it awaits hearings.
South Carolina is one of 14 states that has not created a medical marijuana program despite overwhelming support by state residents for legal cannabis. A 2018 Benchmark Research poll showed 72 percent of South Carolinians support legalizing medical marijuana, including 63 percent of Republicans.
There’s nothing new in the 2021 version of the bill compared with previous iterations, Davis said during a news conference Monday called by veterans groups to rally support for SB 150, which essentially is the same House bill that advanced to both chamber floors last year before the COVID-19 pandemic short-circuited the legislative session.
“The bill has been thoroughly vetted,” Davis said. “It’s been looked at by the SC Medical Association. It has been looked at by law enforcement. We have a very good, tightly regulated medical cannabis bill.”
The legislation authorizes marijuana use for people suffering from debilitating illnesses ranging from epilepsy to PTSD.
Under the measure, patients could purchase up to two ounces of marijuana or an equivalent derivative—such as vape oil—every two weeks. Previous measures prohibited smokable marijuana bud from being legally available, legalizing only orally-ingested, topical or vaping oil products.
If adopted, the bill directs the state to orchestrate the administration of 15 licenses for vertically integrated operators to handle medical marijuana from seed to sale. Product would be sold at more than 100 dispensaries statewide, with the legislation stipulating there must be at least one in every county.
According to a Senate and Marijuana Policy Project analysis, adopting the measure would generate $112 million in taxable revenue and create 1,500 to 2,000 jobs in its first year.
The legislation also will “empower physicians,” Davis said.
“If a physician has a patient with a certain condition for which there has been evidence that medical marijuana can be effective, that we want to empower that doctor to give that patient what that patient needs to get relief whether it’s chronic pain, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis,” Davis said.
Medical marijuana legalization is vigorously supported by veterans groups, which argue data shows suicides among combat veterans declines when they have access to cannabis.
“Veterans fight for this country and continue to come home and fight for us,” said Compassionate South Carolina Director of Government Affairs David Newsom, an Army veteran. “We just need those lawmakers to do a little fighting for them.”
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association and the South Carolina Medical Association, among others, oppose legalizing medical marijuana.
Marijuana Policy Project Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe said such resistance has been long exposed as unfounded and needlessly costly to taxpayers.
“You have 36 states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Utah, where these laws are working well and protecting the seriously ill and are not causing law enforcement problems,” O’Keefe said.