SC Senate medical marijuana debate stretches to third week

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The debate over whether to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina is extending into a third week in the state Senate starting Tuesday, with a Republican leader telling his colleagues to plan for late nights to bring the issue to a vote.

The bill has been the only major item debated by the Senate since Jan. 26. Over five legislative days. Sen. Tom Davis has detailed what he called the conservative nature of his nearly 60-page proposal, including banning the smoking of the drug.

Opponents have pointed out their opposition from concerns medical marijuana would open the door to legalizing recreational use of the drug and worries that federal regulators have not approved using marijuana for medical purposes.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey wrapped up Thursday’s session by telling senators he wanted them to take up the nearly 40 amendments that could change the bill starting Tuesday.

The Republican from Edgefield said he expected senators to work late into the night Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing up a suggestion the late Sen. Hugh Leatherman used to say when the Senate was tackling a thorny issue.

“As the senator from Florence used to say, you might want to bring an extra shirt,” Massey said.

Davis has been fighting for this debate on the Senate floor for seven years. Senators put the bill in a special place on the calendar where they will have to deal with it before they can move on to any other major business.

There are both Republicans and Democrats supporting the bill or else Davis would not have gotten this debate. But senators from both parties are also against the bill in a rare bipartisan showdown.

The Beaufort Republican said his proposal would be one of the most conservative of the 37 states that have approved medical marijuana.

Smoking the drug would remain illegal. Instead, patients would have to 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 said the bill has been carefully crafted, especially responding to the concerns of opponents like law enforcement. The chief of the state law enforcement agency and a number of county sheriffs remain against the bill.

Other opponents said Davis’ bill creates a massive new bureaucracy to handle medical marijuana. They also said the state should wait for the federal Food and Drug Administration’s approval.

“We being the South Carolina Senate, with our vast experience in evaluating effective medications for patents — we’re going to tell the folks back home it’s OK,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, a Republican and former prosecutor from Horry County.

Democratic Sen. Kevin Johnson said he thinks the medical marijuana bill is just a smokescreen to let people get the drug legally.

“Most of the folks who contacted me about this bill, I don’t mean to be ugly, but to be downright honest, they were potheads,” the senator from Manning said.

Davis said it would be silly for someone who would only face a misdemeanor for buying marijuana illegally to go through the strictly controlled steps to get medical marijuana.

“Why would you instead go through this process, lie to your physician, commit a felony to purchase something that is much more expensive than what you could buy on the street?” Davis said.

After Hembree spent more than two hours picking apart his bill Thursday on the Senate floor, Davis thanked him and they agreed that is how the state’s upper chamber should operate.

“There is a lot of information that you provided that I think will go into making this bill better,” Davis said.


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Jeffrey Collins
Jeffrey Collins
I cover South Carolina.