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Republican lawmakers in South Carolina have prefiled legislation to legalize medical marijuana in the state next year, saying patients have waited long enough for legal access to the drug.

“It is unacceptable that South Carolinians with serious illnesses have to break the law to alleviate their suffering,” said the legislation’s lead sponsor in the House of Representatives, Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R), who says that marijuana helped his brother treat symptoms related to cancer.

“My brother deserved better. Our friends, family, and neighbors deserve the same options to medicine that are afforded to Americans in 36 other states,” he said. “Waiting any longer will only add to the suffering that is experienced by those who are plagued with debilitating illness.”

Lawmakers filed two versions of what’s being called The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act on Wednesday. Herbkersman’s H. 3361 is the House measure, while Sen. Tom Davis (R) is sponsoring S. 150 in the legislature’s other chamber. The measures are expected to be taken up during next year’s session, which begins in mid-January.

“I feel there is a very good chance we get something passed this session,” Davis said in a statement released on Thursday. “This bill has been fully vetted after five years of testimony and input by various stakeholders. The time has come for lawmakers to get out of the way and allow patients, in consultation with their physicians, to legally and safely access medicinal cannabis.”

South Carolina doesn’t have a citizen-led initiative process, the path by which many states have legalized medical cannabis, but Davis said on Twitter last month that if he can’t get lawmakers to pass the bill outright he will push to get them to at least place the issue on the ballot through a legislature-referred referendum

“I will work on a bill to send the question to the people,” he said.

While the two versions of the legislation introduced this week differ on specifics, both would legalize medical marijuana for patients with qualifying conditions and establish a dispensary model for distribution. Both would also forbid patients from growing the plant at home.

The Senate’s version is the more restrictive of the two bills. Under S. 150, smoking marijuana would remain illegal, and only processed oils, edibles and topical applications would be available to patients. In a 14-day period, patients by default could buy up to two ounces of total THC in ingestible products, 8.2 grams in concentrates meant for vaporization and four grams in topicals, though doctors could adjust individual patient limits.

The House version, meanwhile, would permit marijuana flower, whether smoked or used for other applications, and allow smoking-related paraphernalia. In a 14-day period, patients could buy up to two ounces of dried cannabis or the equivalent amount of edibles or topicals.

Doctors would also have considerably more leeway under the House bill in terms of recommending medical marijuana. While the Senate version only lists specific types of conditions that qualify for cannabis treatment, the House measure also allows physicians to recommend marijuana to any patient with a debilitating condition that the doctor is qualified to treat. It also specifically lists chronic pain as a qualifying condition, which the Senate version does not.

Here’s a closer look at the legislation’s qualifying conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Neurological disease or disorder, including epilepsy
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Autism
  • Chronic pain — House version only
  • Glaucoma
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Cachexia, or wasting syndrome
  • Severe or persistent nausea — Senate version requires patient to be homebound
  • Terminal illness with less than a year to live
  • A condition causing severe and persistent muscle spasms
  • A condition for which opiates could be prescribed
  • Any debilitating condition the recommending doctor is qualified to treat — House version only

The legislation would establish a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to consider issues such as whether new qualifying conditions should be added.

Bill Griffith, a family medicine doctor in Anderson, SC, said in a statement provided by the advocacy group SC Compassionate Care Alliance that legalization would allow patients who are already using medical marijuana to access safe, tested, reliable products through a regulated market.

“The illegality of medical cannabis in our state is forcing many patients to rely on the dangerous underground market to access their medicine,” he said. “South Carolinians deserve the ability to safely and legally use a substance that has been proven to be effective in treating a variety of medical conditions and poses fewer negative side effects than many prescription drugs, especially opioids, which continue to claim many lives.”

Both versions of the bill would initially license one dispensary per 20 pharmacies in the state, as well as 15 cultivation centers, 30 processing facilities, five testing laboratories and four transporters.

Medical marijuana would be taxed a rate of six percent, the same rate the state attaches to non-prescription drugs. Most of the resulting revenue (90 percent) would go to the state’s general fund, with smaller percentages going to medical marijuana research (5 percent), study into how to detect cannabis-impaired driving (3 percent) and drug safety education (2 percent).

Other new cannabis-related bills prefiled in the House ahead of the 2021 session include another medical marijuana bill, H. 3174, known as The Put Patients First Act, as well as  H. 3202, which would allow a select pool of military veterans to possess cannabis. Another bill, H. 3228, would decriminalize possession up to an ounce of marijuana or hashish. In the Senate, prefiled bills include S. 335—a proposal by Sen. Mia McLeod (D) to permit marijuana for by adults 21 and over and launch a regulated retail cannabis industry—and S. 268, which would put a nonbinding advisory question on the state’s 2022 ballot asking whether voters favor legalizing marijuana for all adults.

While South Carolina Republicans, such as Davis, have attempted to legalize medical marijuana in the past—getting as far as a successful Senate subcommittee vote in 2019—they still face pushback from within their own party.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R) has deferred to law enforcement leaders, such as State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who has said South Carolina shouldn’t legalize until after the federal government reclassifies marijuana.

“As long as Keel opposes it,” the Charleston Post and Courier reported, “so too will Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has said he does not want to get out of law enforcement on the issue.”

Davis in the Senate, meanwhile, said he thinks it’s a political miscalculation by his fellow Republicans to oppose legalization.

“I think it’s a winning issue for them, and I think it’s a strategic mistake to cede the issue to Democrats,” he told the newspaper. “What you’re talking about here is letting an individual, in consultation with their physician, decide for themselves what’s best. I’m not sure you can get more fundamental to limited government than that.”

A 2018 Benchmark Research poll found that 72 percent of South Carolinians support medical marijuana legalization, including nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Republicans, SC Compassionate Care said. That same year, 82 percent of voters in the Democratic primary election voted in favor of medical cannabis legalization in a nonbinding ballot advisory vote.

That strong support encouraged supportive lawmakers, who prefiled four marijuana measures two years ago, as the 2019 session was about to begin. While that legalization push fell short, advocates say voters’ overwhelming approval of legalization ballot measures at the polls last month—including a medical marijuana question in Mississippi—bode well for this year’s effort.

“In Mississippi, more than 2/3 of voters opted to enact a medical cannabis measure. 74% of Americans now live in a state that allows medicinal use of cannabis,” Davis wrote on Twitter last month in response to a political mailer criticizing his work on the issue. “2021 simply MUST be the year we get it done.”

Congressional observers, meanwhile, are watching South Carolina to see whether legalization there could change the calculus at the federal level, where the U.S. Senate is seen as the last remaining obstacle to federal cannabis legalization. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a high-ranking senator who represents the state and chairs the key Senate Judiciary Committee, has consistently opposed legalization, and some advocates wonder whether a policy shift in Graham’s home state could push him to reconsider letting cannabis advance in his panel should his party maintain a majority in the body following next month’s runoff elections for two Georgia seats.

Nearly two-thirds of all voters, and 51 percent of Republicans, said in a recent national poll that they support a House-passed bill to federally legalize marijuana.

Graham’s challenger in the last election, Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, made legalization—not just of medical marijuana, but for adult use, too—a key part of his campaign. “I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do for alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no reason to lock people up over this issue.”

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