COLUMBIA — Election Day 2020 saw another series of victories for proponents of loosening marijuana laws around the country, as voters in several states, including some historically conservative ones, approved referendums to legalize cannabis for either recreational or medicinal use.
Those results encouraged medical marijuana advocates in South Carolina, who now believe 2021 could be the year that their long-stalled proposal finally moves through the Legislature, even as some influential opponents remain unmoved.
State Sen. Tom Davis, the Beaufort Republican who has championed medical cannabis legalization in the Statehouse for years, said he thinks there is a "very, very good chance that we get something passed next session."
Right before the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, Davis was on the brink of making headway on his proposal, as he expected the Senate Medical Affairs Committee to approve it for a full Senate vote after he made substantial changes to accommodate concerns from law enforcement and medical officials.
Those amendments included limiting the list of ailments that cannabis could be used to treat, requiring doctors to follow up with patients they authorize it for and allowing law enforcement to observe dispensaries and grow operations at any time. Davis frames it as the most conservative medical marijuana bill in the country.
Given how much has already been done to the bill, Davis is planning to seek a fast track through the committee process next year so that all lawmakers in the Senate and House could get an opportunity to vote on it relatively early in the session.
"It's already been thoroughly vetted over the last five years as we've had iterations of this and hearings and testimony and further refined the bill as we went along, so we've got a very mature product at this point that is already reflective of the input that all those other stakeholders have wanted to make," Davis said.
The renewed momentum comes after four more states voted to legalize recreational marijuana through ballot referendums, including traditionally GOP-dominated states like South Dakota and Montana, taking the total to 15 states.
Perhaps more notably for South Carolina, voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana, boosting the legalization movement in the Deep South, where it has most struggled to take hold. The Mississippi results mean 36 states now allow medicinal use of marijuana.
"Mississippi shows that the people are way ahead of law enforcement, the medical community, the evangelical community," Davis said. "They understand the medical benefits."
Still, some of the same obstacles remain.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who has long expressed concerns about how medical marijuana could be exploited for illicit purposes, is expected to continue opposing the measure. Keel has argued the state should not shift unless the federal government first reclassifies marijuana.
As long as Keel opposes it, so too will Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has said he does not want to get out in front of law enforcement on the issue.
But Davis argued that the Mississippi results show that may be a political miscalculation from McMaster and any other Republicans who stand in the way.
"I think it's a winning issue for them, and I think it's a strategic mistake to cede the issue to Democrats," Davis said. "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 what can get more fundamental to limited government than that."
Keel's concerns are shared by the S.C. Medical Association, whose president, Dr. Michael Finch, said physicians "still have difficulty breaking with federal law and agreeing to being the sole point for authorizing a schedule one narcotic that is not FDA approved or tested as of this time."
With so many states now approving ballot referendums on the issue, Davis said that could also be a last resort in 2022 if legislators do not move next year. But he said he views that as "a cop out" for lawmakers who don't want to take responsibility themselves and is optimistic it will not come to that.