COLUMBIA - Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, taking aim at what he called "a criminal cancer that will affect the health of seniors," proposed legislation Thursday making it a crime to possess prescription drugs illegally and imposing tough penalties for prescription drug trafficking in South Carolina.
"An increasing number of the elderly's medicine cabinets are being targeted in both private homes and licensed residential facilities," McConnell, whose office operates the state's Office on Aging, told a Statehouse news conference. "Prescription medications have become the drug of choice for many teenagers and young adults because drugs are legal, easy to obtain and convenient to carry on their person."
McConnell said that South Carolina ranks 23rd per capita nationally in deaths from prescription drug overdoses and there were 225 such deaths in 2011.
He said a new law will provide clarity for law enforcement officials and add new penalties for prescription drug trafficking.
"The laws regarding controlled substances in instances are so confusing and they are so convoluted some prosecutors feel the crimes fall into a gray area of interpretation and thus are not prosecutable or are worth the time to prosecute," McConnell said.
The bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, would impose penalties, not on the weight of the drugs seized, but on the number of pills. The measure calls for a minimum of 15 years in prison and a fine of $200,000 or more for anyone convicted of illegally having 600 or more prescription pills.
The law also would make having multiple prescriptions for the same drug evidence of that person's intent to sell those drugs.
"This is a critical area. I think it provides the opportunity so our vulnerable adults will have the protection they need," Alexander said.
He said those trafficking in prescription drugs often get off easy.
"The penalties are such they can sell two or three pills and make the amount of the fine. For so many it's a cost of doing business," he said. "This will make it not a cost of doing business but a crime."
He said the law and the new penalties would not apply to those legally picking up prescriptions for family members or others. People have to sign in drug stores for those prescriptions, he said.