COLUMBIA, S.C. — After a spike in overdose deaths, South Carolina lawmakers are taking up bills that would criminalize fentanyl trafficking and would charge anyone who distributes the deadly drug with homicide charges.
The legislation is one step closer to becoming law, after House and Senate panels heard hours of testimony from families and law enforcement on Thursday.
Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, sponsored fentanyl-related bills the past two legislative sessions and blamed timing for the general assembly’s failure to pass the legislation. State House leaders said passing this legislation is a top priority for them this year.
According to DHEC, Fentanyl-related deaths in South Carolina doubled between 2019 and 2020, going from 537 to 1,100.
Angie and Trent Huechtker know the loss of fentanyl overdoses all to well. They lost their son Chase to a fentanyl overdose in 2020 after a three year battle with opioid addiction. He was 22-years-old.
“It’s an unbearable pain to lose a child," said Angie.
The couple described their son as having a "a big heart."
"That was his biggest attribute. He reached so many people throughout his life and how he impacted people and that’s all he did was care about people," said Trent.
The two, who started the Chase Huechtker Foundation last year, said they will be contacting their legislators to make sure these laws pass.
"We lost our son. It’s not going to bring him back. We have to get the message out there so nobody else has to endure what we have had to," said Trent.
Drug-induced homicide laws, which are on the books in roughly two-dozen states, allow prosecutors to charge drug suppliers in fatal overdoses.
Currently South Carolina doesn't have a trafficking law for fentanyl like it does for other drugs like heroin or cocaine.
The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said they seized 17 kilograms of fentanyl in 2022- or about 11 million doses.
“We need a trafficking statute with minimum, maximum sentences to reduce what we’re seeing on the street with this fentanyl epidemic,” said Major Frank O’Neal with SLED Narcotics Division.
Critics of the laws worry they could led to unintended consequences like punishing friends or partners of overdose victims.
“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,” said Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D – Colleton.
“Our recommendation is there should be some knowledge and intent language in the statute," said Immediate Past President for the SC Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Marion Moses.
Both bills will be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the near future.