In January, South Carolina senators launched into their first-ever debate over medical cannabis, which turned lengthy and impassioned as it pushed into its third week. Then today, for the first time, the chamber passed a medical cannabis bill, sending it to the House.
The South Carolina Senate advanced the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act, also known as S. 150, after both a voice vote and a third reading this week. The bill, if signed into law, would create a tightly regulated system where qualifying patients could obtain a doctor’s recommendation to buy medical cannabis in licensed shops.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Davis, has shepherded the bill through days of debate, often returning to reiterate a central point: that South Carolina’s approach to cannabis is conservative.
“The people of South Carolina are different than the people of Colorado and California,” Davis said during a January hearing, adding that he couldn’t predict whether a medical cannabis bill signed into law would become more restrictive or permissive over time, depending on what South Carolinians and lawmakers wanted.
Topics of extensive discussion included impaired driving, overviews of scientific research, and mentions of the 36 other states that have passed medical cannabis laws and implemented programs. One sticking point was around the degree to which pharmacists should be integrated into the program. Davis spent much of the hearings fielding questions about qualifying conditions, how to prevent youth use, and the need for an “extraordinarily high bar” to qualify for medical cannabis.
During one of the hearings, Sen. Sandy Senn brought up a medical cannabis debate from several years ago during which lawmakers heard testimony from officials in Arizona and Colorado about experiences related to medical cannabis. Senn asked if the “overwhelming” majority of patients in South Carolina would be young adults aged 25 and under, “claiming chronic pain.”
Davis repeatedly drew a hard line between South Carolina’s medical cannabis push, and cannabis use for “recreational” use. Davis went so far as to suggest that the South Carolina version would be a model for states that are in favor of medical but firmly opposed to broader cannabis consumption.
“I want a bill that is truly a medical bill, that people will look at and say,” Davis said. “Unlike California or Colorado and other states, if you’re a state that really wants medical and doesn’t want recreational, and wants to be clear about it, I want this to be that bill,” Davis said.
Davis also highlighted how medical cannabis could specifically help veterans, of which South Carolina counts roughly 400,000, according to government data. Last Tuesday, a group of veterans gathered at the state capital to call on the Senate to pass the bill this session.
Polling shows a split between parties, with 55% of Democrats voting in favor of medical cannabis, and 41% of Republicans against. A December poll of 300 registered voters, conducted by the Cannabis Alliance for South Carolina, also noted 14% were undecided.
Law enforcement came up several times, and Davis said that his medical cannabis bill was “better because of that engagement” with South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and other members of law enforcement.
“When you have spirited opposition and when you’ve got opponents challenging your assumptions and when you have them looking at language and saying ‘have you thought about this consequence?’ you end up with a better bill,” Davis said. “And so I think that that’s been in the interest of South Carolina to have had such a spirited debate over seven years, with so many stakeholders not just saying ‘no,’ but engaging.”