COLUMBIA, S.C. — When South Carolina Sen. Tom Davis first proposed expanding access to marijuana for people with debilitating health problems about seven years ago, opponents at the State House sporting “marijuana is not medicine” stickers were not uncommon.
Today, the Beaufort Republican said, you just don’t see that — at least not as prominently.
“The debate over whether there’s medical benefits, that debate’s been settled,” Davis told The State in an interview.
Next year, South Carolina lawmakers will debate and possibly vote to join nearly 40 states that legalize some sort of medical marijuana. In this case, for use in oils and creams prescribed by licensed doctors for people with some of the most-serious and debilitating diseases and health problems.
It would be a major policy shift for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which only last passed similar legislation in 2014 when then-Gov. Nikki Haley signed Davis’ bill into law to allow people with severe epilepsy to be prescribed cannabidiol.
It also would match up with the public’s general support.
Most of the state’s 46 senators told The State last week they expect Davis’ bill — S. 150 — will be the top priority on the chamber’s calendar next year, giving it special status to come up for debate first. Some of those same senators told the newspaper they are confident the Senate will pass the bill and send it to the House — years after Davis first proposed legalizing marijuana for medical use.
The State’s survey of South Carolina’s 46 state senators found a majority, if not all, senators want to have the debate.
Yet, in addition to the bill’s 16 sponsors, three said they were supportive or leaning toward voting for it. Eleven said they were still studying the bill or hadn’t decided, while some of them acknowledged the public support and the health benefits but wanted to see changes.
Five said they were likely to vote against and one declined to comment. Ten senators could not be reached by deadline.
“When he (Davis) first introduced it years ago, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it,” said pastor and state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who said he’s moved from apprehensive to “very supportive.”
He added, “I hope this is the year that we get to move it. I think he has built an impressive bipartisan support group.”
But others, who all laud Davis’ yearslong work, said they have serious reservations given opposition from the state’s top law enforcement official, the South Carolina Medical Association and the federal government’s indecision to end the prohibition on marijuana.
“I’m not in favor of federal law being one thing and state law being another. I just don’t want to support something that I know is a violation of the federal law,” freshman state Sen. Billy Garrett, R-McCormick, said. “I think we’re a little premature.”
This month, the conversation over legalization was reignited by Democratic governor hopeful Joe Cunningham, when he rolled out a policy proposal in support of legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana. He called it a “game changer,” saying it could help generate new revenue for the state to fix roads and schools and expand Medicaid, to name a few.
His primary opponent, state Sen. Mia McLeod — a Richland County Democrat who is a co-sponsor of Davis’ bill — offered her own support for legalization, arguing “public perception about marijuana has changed and so must the laws that govern its use.”
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who so far has no high-profile primary challenger, hasn’t outright said where he stands or whether he’d veto the bill if passed, giving proponents hope.
“There is a lot of suffering that is treatable … with medical marijuana,” McMaster told reporters last month. “I think we need to be very careful and use common sense.”
However, while McMaster reiterated Thursday it can provide “great relief” to people in pain, he told reporters, “but until we can be sure that it is safe and meets the law enforcement standards, then we still got work to do and it does not pass that test.”
A public push tacked onto a changing Legislature could ultimately steer the train, proponents say.
Across political parties, South Carolinians are more inclined to support marijuana for medical purposes, polling shows.
In 2014, a Winthrop University poll found 72% of South Carolinians supported medical marijuana legalization. Two years later, that support was higher — 78%, or four in five residents, Winthrop found.
Support hasn’t changed much since then.
In February, Republican firm Starboard Communications found 72% of likely general election voters support allowing a doctor to prescribe medical marijuana to people who suffer from serious medical problems.
It’s not so much that public perception has changed, said political strategist Walt Whetsell, who runs Starboard. He said it’s more that support has grown inside the Legislature, which year after year is faced with anecdotal evidence about medical benefits.
“We’ve been polling on this issue for four to five years, and the numbers have been fairly consistent,” Whetsell said.
Today, despite a federal ban, 37 states have legalized marijuana for medical use.
And though South Carolina’s Legislature isn’t anytime soon likely to consider legalizing pot for recreational use by adults, so far 18 states and Washington, D.C., have done so.
All this has occurred in the background of a serious opioid epidemic consuming the country, lawmakers said. That includes South Carolina, where 1,730 people died from overdose deaths last year — a nearly 52% jump.
For senators against Davis’ proposal, there’s an array of factors, including that it may lead to recreational legalization.
Law enforcement, but more specifically State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, is against it, they note. Though, Keel’s opposition to the open carry with a permit gun bill did not stop lawmakers from passing the gun measure this year.
“Legalizing marijuana in any capacity is a public safety concern, and I know of no other proposed legislation that has the potential for negatively impacting South Carolina as we know it today,” Keel said through a spokesperson.
Second, Democratic and Republican senators told The State bypassing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerning. Senators also want clear and strict guardrails, whether it’s a dispensary or a cultivator licensed to grow.
Davis’ bill puts restrictions on what medical conditions would be permitted, and it puts limits on how many licensed cultivators can grow in the state, and it restricts the number of processing, transporting, testing and dispensing facilities that can open.
“I just think the time has come” to pass medical marijuana, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said. “I wish we weren’t (handling this) at the state level. It should be a federal issue, but it’s not.”
South Carolina voters won’t elect their next governor until November 2022.
But lawmakers are already worried that Cunningham’s support to also legalize recreational marijuana could kill the debate.
“It unfortunately introduced recreational marijuana in a conversation that Sen. Davis has skillfully gotten us away from,” said state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, a co-sponsor of Davis’ bill.
Freshman state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, R-Spartanburg, said knowing where the governor stands, more specifically would he veto it — an action that may not have the votes to override — could help shape the debate, alleviating concern.
“Cunningham tossed a grenade,” said Kimbrell, who’s undecided.
Should the Senate pass the bill, sending it to the 124-member House, it wasn’t immediately clear how votes there would shake out.
But for state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, who filed similar legislation — H. 3361 — the issue is personal: His brother died from cancer but used marijuana to help alleviate his pain. He said he’s confident it moves through the House next year.
“This isn’t anything that’s seedy,” said Herbkersman, who wants to take lawmakers on a trip to Mississippi State to see their medical marijuana operation. “This is true pharmaceutical.”
Added state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, gone should be the days when marijuana was viewed simply as a “gateway drug.”
“If marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said, “I would have been lying in a gutter some 30 years ago.”
(Reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this report.)
©2021 The State. Visit at thestate.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.