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Medical marijuana bill stuck in SC House as legislative work winds down

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, speaks on the Senate floor on March 23, 2023 a week after his medical marijuana bill, S. 423, failed to get put on special order for priority debate.
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Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, speaks on the Senate floor on March 23, 2023 a week after his medical marijuana bill, S. 423, failed to get put on special order for priority debate.

"I don’t make any apologies for the fact that this is a very conservative, tightly regulated bill," said S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.

A yearslong effort to legalize marijuana strictly for medical use in South Carolina may have to wait another year.

There are less than two weeks left in the legislative session. As of Wednesday, that amounts to five days before lawmakers finish their work for the year.

And the bill championed by Republican Sen. Tom Davis that passed the Senate earlier this year remains stuck in a House committee.

"I intentionally, you know, got the Senate to move it up and move it quickly," Davis told SC Public Radio. "It got passed out I think the first or second week in February to get it over to them in time. And, so, they’ve had over two months, and it's just been sitting in committee. And, look, that is frustrating.”

Dubbed the "Compassionate Care Act," the bill would only legalize marijuana for use in oils, patches, salves, and vaporizers.

It could only be prescribed by a doctor for certain uses. They include cancer, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, Crohn’s disease, neurological diseases, or disorders, like epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Davis, a Beaufort-based senator, has advocated for medical cannabis use for a decade.

Two years ago, the Senate passed Davis’s proposal. The House threw it out on a technicality.

So, like in past years, Davis tightened the bill to appease wary colleagues.

"South Carolina is a more conservative state than California and New York and Illinois," he said. "And, so, I don’t make any apologies for the fact that this is a very conservative, tightly regulated bill.”

Davis’ colleagues aren’t the only group the senator’s had to appease.

Most in law enforcement oppose it.

That includes State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel.

"You know, I’ve heard some people say well, ‘Chief, we’ve got it in 33 other states, so what’s the difference?’ Well, we’re learning what’s happening in these 33 other states," Keel testified last week at a S.C. House ad hoc committee. "We don’t have to be like them. South Carolina is different, and that’s why people are moving here, that's why industry is coming here.”

In addition to his own warnings about the bill, Keel told lawmakers he might be willing to pull his opposition on one condition.

"The day that the FDA approves it, you’ll never see me downtown again. I’ll never be before another committee," Keel testified.

There’s no way to say when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might ever approve marijuana for medical use.

But Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration plans to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug.

It’s a huge policy shift that is sure to motivate proponents.

Supporters like Jeff Moore, the former 32-year director of the state’s Sheriff’s Association.

"It gave him a relief from the nightmares, the grief, the constant tears, and gave him a chance to put his life back together," Moore told those same lawmakers last week about his son, a high school dropout who joined the Army at 18 and was deployed to Iraq.

Moore said he came home a different person after he witnessed the deaths of five friends and the death of a 6-year-old girl, killed by a grenade during a home search.

During a later deployment in South Korea, his son turned to alcohol.

That was his downfall, Moore said.

He moved to Michigan, where marijuana is legal, and was in and out of rehab.

Today he’s 36, married, holding a degree in psychology and sociology.

He now works with people who have substance abuse problems.

Moore credits his son’s turnaround in part to marijuana.

"He knows it because he’s been through it, he’s lived it and he’s come out the other end," Moore testified through tears. "Wouldn’t you want that for your son? Wouldn’t you? I couldn’t be more proud of him. I couldn’t.”

Sen. Davis said that he'll respect the outcome. He just wants to see a vote on the House floor.

If the bill fails to become law by May 9, it’ll have to be refiled next year.

Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) is a news reporter with South Carolina Public Radio and ETV. She worked at South Carolina newspapers for a decade, previously working as a reporter and then editor of The State’s S.C. State House and politics team, and as a reporter at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013.