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Charleston Republicans back legalizing medical marijuana on eve of bill filing

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Medical marijuana bag

A bag of state-authorized medical marijuana in California. File

In a move that could force the S.C. Republican Party to take up the issue in its platform, Charleston County GOP members Monday backed a resolution urging state lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana.

The 27-10 vote came on the eve of Beaufort Republican Tom Davis' plans to file his pro-medical marijuana Compassionate Care Act in the state Senate.

Charleston Republican Rep. Peter McCoy said he plans to sponsor similar legislation in the House.

McCoy, who chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee, said the Charleston party is the first known county GOP in South Carolina to take a position on the topic.

"It sends a strong message of momentum surrounding this issue," McCoy told The Post and Courier after the vote. "When we file this bill this coming week, hopefully we can move this forward in the Legislature."

Last summer, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly chose to support the legalization of medical marijuana by voting on a non-binding ballot resolution. Republicans, however, did not get the chance to weigh in the topic as it did not appear on their ballot.

"Republicans should be for this bill," Davis said. "Republicans are for getting government out of people's lives and limiting the reach of government."

But 60 seconds at a time on Monday night, a handful of Charleston Republicans voiced their opposition to the idea. Many feared legalizing cannabis for medical use could lead to the recreational legalization of marijuana and attract more Democrats to the state.

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"Our state government can't even build the highways," said speaker Noel Casey. "They don't have the personnel to enforce this." 

Most pro-marijuana bills filed in the past had been considered dead on arrival in the Statehouse, but there has been movement on the issue in recent years. In 2014, Davis led a successful effort to pass a law allowing patients with severe epilepsy, or their caregivers, to legally possess cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive oil derived from marijuana.

In Davis' latest iteration, all sales of medical cannabis would be subject to a 6 percent sales tax along with other fees for someone to take part, to be paid into a S.C. Medical Cannabis Program Fund.

The fund would reimburse the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for costs of running the program and, Davis said, any surplus from the fund would then be distributed to law enforcement, specifically SLED and the state's 46 sheriff's offices.

The bill also makes it explicitly illegal to smoke medical marijuana, and lists specific requirements for prescribing physicians and operators of medical cannabis dispensaries.

Patrick Dennis, general counsel for the South Carolina Medical Association, said his organization not only has concerns about making physicians an access point for an illegal drug but is worried about the potential impact on patients.

"You get marijuana FDA approved, and the SC Medical Association doesn't have a disagreement any longer," he said. "This is about patient safety for us and knowing what is going to happen to a patient when they use this substance." 

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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