COLUMBIA — State lawmakers began their first highly anticipated review of a bill legalizing medical marijuana in South Carolina on Wednesday, seeking to tighten regulations and temper concerns it will lead to people using the drug recreationally.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, led a Senate subcommittee as it sought to quell opposition from religious groups, law enforcement and South Carolina's largest medical association.
The panel didn't take a vote on the measure, but it offered an introduction into how the bill might be altered moving forward.
The meeting marked the first time the bill was officially debated in the Statehouse this year though it has been a top attention-getter in the past two months.
The S.C. Medical Association and the state's top law enforcement officials held a joint press conference in January to draw attention to their worries about the bill. Attorney General Alan Wilson then suggested marijuana was "the most dangerous drug" in America because it is "the most misunderstood."
And last week, an anonymous group mailed out hundreds of flyers attacking the bill and alleging Davis, its primary sponsor, wants to turn South Carolina in "one big pot party."
The senators on the panel ignored that drama Wednesday. They were focused on trying to tweak the legislation to alleviate concerns it will lead to recreational use of marijuana in the state.
Davis has been working on passing similar legislation since 2015. He said that experience has helped to ensure the latest 25-page proposal properly regulates the medical marijuana industry, which already operates in 34 other states.
"I want this to be a very socially-conservative, very tightly regulated medical cannabis bill that puts medicine in the hands of people who need it," he said.
The bill already includes many restrictions on how doctors would be able to prescribe marijuana, cannabis oils and other edible marijuana products to patients.
It defines the type of medical conditions people would need to be suffering from in order to qualify. That includes cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and people in hospice care.
It would require people working in the medical marijuana industry to be cleared by a State Law Enforcement Division background check, and would punish people who divert medical marijuana for recreational use with up to five years in prison.
"The optics of this bill matter," Davis said. "We have an opportunity here to be declarative to the people of South Carolina that we are serious about treating this as medicine, that we are serious about this not being abused and we are serious about imposing penalties on individuals who attempt to abuse the system."
Davis' earlier attempts to pass legislation in the past ran up against conservative politics in South Carolina. It was derailed due to resistance from local and state law enforcement officials. As a result, Davis asked other members of the Senate to help study any further changes.
The lawmakers are talking to SLED about its concerns about people driving under the influence of marijuana. They are reviewing the apprehensions of some medical professionals about the use of marijuana for medical problems. And they are meeting with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce to figure out how rules surrounding drug use in workplaces can fit with the proposed law.
Davis wants oversight of the industry to stretch from "seed to sale," he said.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, suggested lawmakers could narrow the number of doctors allowed to prescribe marijuana by limiting it to health care specialists, like oncologists and neurologists. Currently, the bill would allow any licensed doctor to prescribe it to patients that would qualify.
Kimpson doesn't personally believe the law is too lax right now. But he's looking for changes to get more people on board and to get the bill passed into law.
It's yet to be seen whether those changes will be enough to make South Carolina the next state to legalize medical marijuana.