SC House passes bill to criminalize fentanyl trafficking

Lawmakers are fast-tracking a push to criminalize trafficking fentanyl in South Carolina, where it is currently not a law.
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 10:28 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 at 10:59 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Lawmakers are fast-tracking a push to criminalize trafficking fentanyl in South Carolina, where it is currently not a law.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives gave that legislation second reading in a 96-21 vote, essentially passing it, with a perfunctory third-reading vote scheduled for Thursday.

“We did something today that lets those dealers and traffickers know that South Carolina is doing something about fentanyl coming in to South Carolina and killing our children,” Rep. Jeff Johnson, R – Horry, told reporters after the vote.

Under this legislation, people convicted, for the first time, of possessing at least four grams of drugs containing fentanyl face at least seven mandatory years in prison, plus a $50,000 fine.

Those caught with larger quantities could be behind bars for up to 40 years and have to pay a $200,000 fine.

“This is the top level. This is not a kid with a pill. This is 40 pills, 60 pills, 80 pills, 100 — this is a significant weight of probably the most dangerous chemical we’ve seen,” House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R – York, said.

Republicans unanimously supported the bill’s passage, and many of them gathered in the House antechamber after the vote at a press conference, standing behind caucus leadership as they celebrated advancing the legislation.

“We need to make sure that those who are trafficking drugs and fentanyl that are harming the children of this state are going to be treated harshly and swiftly,” Speaker of the House Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, said.

But some Democrats argued this bill will create more problems than it solves, claiming mandatory minimum sentences have not been proven to deter people from dealing and using drugs.

“An individual should be allowed to go in front of a judge and say, ‘Judge, I have no record. Judge, I’m not violent. I’ve never hurt anybody. I’ve never been in trouble in my entire life. I thought I had seven Xanax pills,’” Rep. Seth Rose, D – Richland, said during Wednesday’s debate.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford argued this bill should have distinguished between pills containing fentanyl, which people with substance-use disorders may possess without realizing they contain fentanyl, and powder fentanyl, which he said would mark criminals who are trafficking the drug.

“We have to delineate between those persons that are unreasonably snared into this process and those dealers,” Rutherford said. “I’m after the dealers. They’re not. What they’re after is a bumper stick, and until we stop the bumper-sticker politics, until we move on to the science and the data that tells us what makes a difference, all we’re doing in this case is putting lives in jeopardy.”

In a tweet sent after Wednesday’s vote in the House, Gov. Henry McMaster said he hopes this bill will reach his desk soon for him to sign it into law, which he said will “send a clear, unified message to criminals distributing fentanyl: If you’re caught introducing this poison into our communities, you’re going to spend a very long time behind bars.”

Bills to criminalize fentanyl trafficking, including mandatory minimum sentences, and create a charge of fentanyl-induced homicide both advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, so they now await debate on the Senate floor.