COLUMBIA — Seven years of work to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina has gone up in smoke.
With just five days left in the 2022 session, House leaders ruled that a bill to legalize medical marijuana was in fact unconstitutional and killed the measure before MPs haven’t had the chance to discuss it.
“Procedurally, this bill is dead,” Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, told the House on May 4, ending supporters’ hopes.
Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, who introduced more than 1,000 amendments intended to curb his momentum, argued the legislation was a ‘revenue-boosting bill’ that should have legally come from the House where these matters begin.
He cited a 2015 case in which the SC Senate sought to raise fuel taxes for road repairs that the attorney general’s office ruled unconstitutional because it sought to create revenue.
While other legal precedents in South Carolina allow the Senate to create ancillary revenue — like fees or penalties — the bill by lead medical marijuana sponsor, Senator Tom Davis, imposed a new tax on cannabis products in addition to new license fees for producers and financial penalties for violating the law.
That was enough to make it illegal.
Pope, the president pro tempore, agreed with McGravy and declared the bill out of order.
As Democrats sought to overturn the decision, the House ultimately voted 59 to 55 to uphold McCravy’s objection. Seven members – including outgoing House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill – did not vote.
In comments after the decision, Davis, R-Beaufort, told reporters he believed the decision to reject the bill was arbitrary. The House had voted for numerous Senate bills containing similar revenue-raising provisions this session, he argued, and staff and legal counsel told him when drafting the bill. that its primary goal was to legalize medical marijuana — not to create new taxes.
“It’s been part of the bill for seven years,” he told reporters. “It’s just that this time someone saw the vote count, tried a Hail Mary pass and, like Doug Flutie, completed that pass in the end zone.”
Davis says he will continue to try to pass the bill and is evaluating other bills still in effect that he could potentially rewrite to include medical marijuana.
“I would say they haven’t won the game yet,” he added. “We have four legislative days left. There are other ways for us to skin this cat. There are other ways for us to get this before the representatives for an up or down vote. And I think that’s what the people of South Carolina deserve.”
The narrow move to uphold the ruling caps an effort that saw what Davis described as the nation’s “most conservative” medical cannabis bill pass through the Senate earlier this year for the first time in nearly two weeks. a decade of effort.
For months, veterans groups and high-profile politicians like U.S. Representative Nancy Mace have traveled to the Statehouse to lobby for the measure. Powerful lobby groups such as Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, also launched public campaigns of support. Polls in the state showed that legalizing medical marijuana was popular with the majority of voters from both major parties.
It’s unclear whether that would have won the support of Governor Henry McMaster, a former prosecutor who has kept his views on legalizing medical marijuana close to his chest.
“There are pros and cons to that,” McMaster told reporters May 4 in the hours before Bill died. “It’s not an easy question, but it’s interesting that law enforcement at all levels opposes it. You have hospitals for it but medical associations against it. There are good arguments from both sides. If it happens on my desk, I’ll take a good look and make a decision.”
The defeat of the medical marijuana bill could also have implications for House-Senate cooperation as both chambers rapidly approach the end of the May 12 session. In a panel of reporters, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the House decision “could have significant implications for House-Senate relations” amid ongoing tensions between the organs.
Earlier in the session, the Senate significantly rewrote an electoral reform bill passed by the House, drawing strong rebukes from House Speaker Jay Lucas and McMaster.
Although Davis said he didn’t think it would involve the Senate retaliating by killing House bills, he said the working relationship between the two chambers could be significantly altered.
“I think it’s also necessary to explain to members of the Senate exactly what happened in the House today,” Davis told reporters. “If a Senate bill involving the collection of revenue incidental to its primary purpose is found to be unconstitutional, it significantly changes the way the two bodies interact. I think the Senate needs to discuss it, and we need to think about what the appropriate response might be.”
Seanna Adcox contributed reporting.