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SC senator gets 7-year wish for medical marijuana debate

Tom-Davis_Medical Marijuana_South Carolina
Jeffrey Collins/AP
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AP
South Carolina Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, begins a debate on legalizing medical marijuana in the state on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. Davis has been fighting for a floor debate on his proposal for seven years. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina Sen. Tom Davis walked up to the well of the Senate about 1:45 p.m. Wednesday to finally get the medical marijuana debate to which he has dedicated more than seven years of his legislative career.

The Senate unanimously agreed to debate the bill by the Republican from Beaufort until it gets a vote one way or the other. And Davis, carrying his thick binder up to the podium, collectively asked the 44 senators who fill the chamber the same thing he has said in one-on-one discussions since he started vowing to get this vote in 2015 to patients who said they need marijuana to dull debilitating pain or other medical problems.

"If you've got other ideas, if you've got ways to make this bill better, I'm up for that," Davis said.

Davis' bill has been carefully crafted during that time. He said it would be one of the most conservative medical marijuana bills in the country.

People using medical marijuana could not smoke it, having instead to use use oils, salves, patches or vaporizers.

Doctors would have to meet patients in person, checking for any history of substance abuse and creating a written treatment plan. Patients could get only two-week supplies at one time.

The proposal specifies the illnesses that could be treated, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, sickle cell anemia and autism.

The marijuana could be obtained only through special dispensaries run by a state-licensed pharmacist, physician assistant or clinical practice nurse.

Davis is adamant that the goal of this bill is not to open the door to legalizing recreational marijuana.

"I don't apologize for that. This is something new. I think it is important we proceed cautiously," Davis said.

But there is plenty of opposition from law enforcement, religious groups and fellow Republicans. As the Senate gaveled into session Wednesday and Davis organized his thoughts at his desk, there was a news conference outside the Statehouse where a lawmaker and a group representing conservatives spoke as law enforcement officers stood behind them.

Palmetto Family Council President Dave Wilson wondered why the state Senate prioritized the marijuana debate over other issues like cutting taxes or protecting religious liberty.

Republican Sen. Greg Hembree said Davis' bill helps the big business of marijuana more than patients.

"This is not medical marijuana. This is marijuana," said Hembree, a former prosecutor from Little River. "This is a way to dispense marijuana to a vast majority of people. And let me make one other point very clear: It is not about medicine. It is not about medical treatment. It is about money. It is about a lot of money."

It's not the first time Davis has taken the Senate well on the issue. In 2016, during the five minutes senators can speak about personal issues each day, he walked up to the same podium for weeks with a blown up photo in hand to tell the story of a different person who suffered and wanted medical marijuana.

The beginning of the debate showed it won't be quick and the outcome is uncertain.

Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston, from one of the least conservative districts held by a Republican, said she was still reading the bill but at the moment she felt like passing it would open a door the state could never close and make marijuana widely available.

"I can go to the doctor and say my knee hurts. My knee has been hurting for six years. I have chronic pain," Senn said. "These doctors are going to be basically prescribing marijuana for everything because they can prescribe opioids for anything."

Davis replied there are specific criteria doctors have to follow. And he kept talking for more than three hours.

"South Carolinians don't want to be like California or Colorado," Davis said. They want to take a baby step here."