COLUMBIA — A bill to legalize medical use of cannabis in South Carolina took a key step forward March 31, advancing out of a state Senate committee 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 voted to approve the bill and advance it to the Senate floor. 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 end of the 2021 legislative session.
Passage 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.
“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 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 patient 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, 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 said he wanted to have a tightly regulated bill.
Several senators, including the chamber’s President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, and Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, spoke up 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.”
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.