Medical marijuana bill: South Carolina lawmakers try again

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Monday, January 14, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers are once again introducing legislation to legalize marijuana for treatment of critically ill patients in the state, making another go at a debate that has gradually made progress in this deeply red state in recent years.

Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort, told The Associated Press that he plans on Tuesday to file the Compassionate Care Act in the state Senate. In the House, Republican Rep. Peter McCoy of Charleston is sponsoring similar legislation.

If it succeeds, South Carolina's measure would be among the most restrictive in the country. Making it explicitly illegal to smoke medical marijuana, the proposal also lays out several requirements for prescribing physicians and operators of medical cannabis dispensaries and also specifies a list of illnesses to which it could be applicable, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple sclerosis.

Marijuana-related measures have made strides in South Carolina in recent years, and advocates continue to push for more. In 2014, Davis led a successful effort to pass a narrow law allowing patients with severe epilepsy, or their caregivers, to legally possess cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive oil derived from marijuana.

A bill similar to Davis' current effort died in committee in previous sessions, but Davis and others have said they're encouraged by polling showing that nearly 80 percent of South Carolinians support legalizing marijuana for medical use. Last summer, Democratic primary voters also opted overwhelmingly to support the legalization of medical marijuana in a non-binding ballot resolution.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, the leading Democrat in the House chamber, has said his caucus wants to move forward this year on legalizing marijuana for medical uses.

Davis' previous proposal drew opposition from the law enforcement community, with State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel testifying about his concerns that legalizing marijuana in any form could create a "black market" for resale and potential abuse. At committee meetings, law enforcement groups distributed handouts showing visual similarities between candies marketed to children and the packaging of some edible marijuana products available in areas where recreational use of the drug is legal.

But there has been more recent movement on the issue.

Last week, a Senate panel advanced a resolution urging Congress to open more research on medical uses for marijuana. Bill sponsor Sen. Greg Hembree, a Republican and former prosecutor, said he supports expanding the possible medical uses of cannabis with the right testing, procedures, and caution, something he said he feels isn't happening in other states that have embraced medical marijuana perhaps too readily.

Patrick Dennis, general counsel for the South Carolina Medical Association, said Monday his organization had concerns about the proposal.

"Our physicians remain opposed to sections of the new bill forcing physicians to be the access point for marijuana in South Carolina," Denis said. "It is important for lawmakers and physicians alike to engage in a careful study if this new iteration of marijuana legislation."

A total of 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico allow some type of medical cannabis program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Discussing his proposal with AP, Davis called it a "socially conservative" bill that helps patients in need but also includes stiff penalties for recreational use.

"This is South Carolina, not California or Colorado, and what the vast majority of people in our state want is a socially conservative medical marijuana law, one that provides medical patients truly in need with relief but draws a bright line against recreational use by imposing strict penalties," he said.