Associated Press

FILE -- In this Oct. 4, 2016, file photo, farmworkers remove stems and leaves from newly harvested marijuana plants at Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open air marijuana farm, in Avondale, Colo.

Lawmakers on Thursday began work on a bill that if approved would make South Carolina the 30th state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes – reigniting an issue that has risen to prominence in Columbia in recent years.

A Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee spent an hour outlining how to proceed in moving S. 212 – known as the “South Carolina Compassionate Care Act” forward. The meeting was carried live on the General Assembly's website. 

In opening remarks, the bipartisan panel’s split opinions on the controversial topic mirrored the wider dialogue that has played out across the state as efforts to push marijuana’s medicinal value mount.

A similar provision failed to make it out of the Medical Affairs committee last year.

“I am committed to the careful consideration and study of this bill, and to the best of our ability and the process of consensus, handing this bill back to the committee at some point with a report of some action,” said Sen. Daniel Verdin, R-Laurens. “Regardless of the outcome of this committee’s work or even the action of the General Assembly this year, this subject is not going to go away.”

Beaufort Republican Tom Davis, an attorney who co-sponsored the bill, said if signed into law, it would be one of the nation’s most stringent.

“I recognize that South Carolina is a socially conservative state, and South Carolinians have tremendous respect for law enforcement, as they should. In drafting this bill, what I’ve attempted to do is look at those 29 other states and take the parts that are most effective,” Davis said. “This is probably the most conservative medical cannabis law that is being put forward.”

Though language in the measure could change, provisions include:

-- Not allowing any person under the age of 18 to smoke cannabis

-- Prohibiting use of medical cannabis products in public places or any form of public transportation

-- Submitting to a State Law Enforcement Division background check for any qualifying patient

-- Creation of a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to review petitions and add qualifying medical conditions

Although several studies have shown the medical benefits of cannabis for people with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS, the Federal Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as a “safe and effective drug for any indication,” according to its website.

That, and widespread opposition by law enforcement groups, has led some lawmakers, such as Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, to come out against a medical marijuana policy in South Carolina.

“I do have a concern for people who are suffering from issues that marijuana can help, but I’m not there yet that this bill is the answer,” he said. “If it’s a good remedy, the FDA needs to step up and verify that, and they haven’t done that.”

Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican, agreed with Johnson.

“I share some concerns as well. I stated that position last year as we were before the full committee,” he said. “I’ve read through the bill and have numerous concerns and look forward to getting answers to those, but I continue to have reservations about this being a policy in the state of South Carolina at this time.”

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and a co-sponsor with Davis, said medical cannabis is a safer alternative to other drugs that can be prescribed by doctors.

“We’ve got doctors that have the power to prescribe opioids, and it’s killing people. This isn’t going to kill anybody. The time has come,” he said. “We’ve tried to put every possible safeguard in this bill that we can so that children who suffer can be relieved, veterans who suffer from PTSD can be relieved, people in South Carolina who have problems we would not want to think about having in our families, they need relief that this drug can give them."

The committee meets again at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, where public comment is expected to be taken.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.