Legislation to criminalize fentanyl trafficking in SC advances at State House

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Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 6:51 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - More than half of the drug-overdose deaths in South Carolina right now can be traced to fentanyl, and those deaths doubled during the pandemic, according to DHEC data.

But there is currently no law on the books in South Carolina that criminalizes trafficking fentanyl.

State House leaders list passing this legislation as a top priority for them this year, and that process started on Thursday when panels in both the Senate and House of Representatives took up bills to do that.

Both meetings were well-attended by South Carolinians wearing shirts bearing the names of loved ones, no longer with them, who died from fentanyl overdoses.

“He was failed in life, and I will do everything I can so his death was not in vain,” Crystal Kraft of Aiken told senators of her son, Clifton.

One by one, they — mostly mothers — urged lawmakers to act on their loved one’s behalf.

“It is just embarrassing and demeaning to have to be here and plead for laws to be passed,” Patty Roberts of York County said.

Their calls were joined by those of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and mayors for the same reason.

“This legislation is what we need to continue to make a difference in this attack,” Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock said.

On Thursday, the House and Senate subcommittees took up fentanyl-trafficking bills, with senators advancing theirs and another bill that would charge suppliers with homicide if they distributed a drug that led to a fatal fentanyl overdose.

While lawmakers want to pass legislation that cracks down on the fentanyl epidemic, some of them said getting this done is not as simple as it may appear.

“We all in here want to be able to blink and stop this epidemic. But I don’t know the proper avenue of stopping it,” Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D – Colleton, said.

A major challenge, they said, is passing legislation that targets traffickers but does not lock up those with substance-use disorders or who may have unknowingly provided the pills or drugs that caused an overdose death.

“We need to make sure that when we seek to fix a problem, we don’t create another, and I’m simply saying and my concern is that we are not locking up individuals who think they have Percocets, who think they have Xanaxes,” Rep. Seth Rose, D – Richland, said.

In the Senate meeting, defense attorneys testifying made a similar argument, and senators said they might consider adding language to the bill that would require traffickers and suppliers, in order to be convicted, knew the drugs they had contained fentanyl and intended to sell or distribute them.

Other lawmakers argued against that language, saying an investigation will reveal if someone should face the most severe charges under this legislation, or if prosecutors should plead it down.

“Isn’t that what those layers are for?” Sen. Brian Adams, R – Berkeley, and a retired police officer, said. “We’re making it harder for law enforcement to go after the traffickers, and we’re giving them a way to get out of charges.”

Many of the loved ones of overdose victims argued against the knowledge-and-intent language, as well, and favored mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted.

Senators advanced their bills Thursday, so those will next be considered at the committee level, likely in the next two weeks.

House members, meanwhile, did not vote on their trafficking bill, saying they ran out of time during Thursday’s meeting and want to hear from everyone who wants to speak on this legislation before they vote on if they will advance it.

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