COLUMBIA — At the first meeting of the state's newly formed opioid-abuse study panel, House Speaker Jay Lucas charged lawmakers with changing the culture of heroin and prescription pain pill abuse in South Carolina.
"Each of you has been given an opportunity to make a difference," the Hartsville Republican told the 16-member House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee.
"And to better protect our citizens and families from this growing epidemic so that the number of those who struggle with opioid abuse is lower tomorrow than it was yesterday," he added.
In 2015, there were 565 confirmed overdose deaths in South Carolina tied to prescription opioids or heroin. Representatives from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said they expect the 2016 numbers to be higher when the data is tallied.
The House already moved earlier this year to pass several pieces of legislation which, among other things, would allow pharmacies to operate as drop-off locations for unused pills and require doctors to check a state database before prescribing highly addictive pain pills.
Many proposals remain in committees in the Senate.
The Senate on Monday approved an amended version of the bill to allow pharmacies to collect unused pills. The bill could be addressed in the House before the legislative session ends Thursday. Since this is the first in a two-year session, bills not passed by both chambers can be readdressed in January.
The House panel, created by Lucas last month, is tasked with studying abuse of the drug in South Carolina and determining the best legislative solutions to combat addiction and curb the hundreds of opioid-related overdose deaths.
Sara Goldsby, acting director of the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, applauded lawmakers for looking at the rise in opioid overdoses as a health issue instead of a criminal one, as is often done with most forms of drug abuse.
"We tend to criminalize or look at the folks in our families that are cheating or lying to us as having a character flaw," she said. "All of the science out there tells us that the physiology of brains altered by opiates are altered differently than any other addictions. Opioid Use Disorder is the most difficult addiction to recover from because of the way it changes the brain."
The panel received an introduction from state agencies and other interested parties Tuesday on where the state stands in its effort to fight opioid abuse. Some in law enforcement said the problem, which many say has reached epidemic proportions, has been on the horizon for more than a decade.
"We knew this problem was coming years ago," said Bill Knowles, commander of the 15th Judicial Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit, covering Horry and Georgetown counties. "In 2005, when we started executing search warrants, 95 percent of the time we found prescription medication there. It was not hard to predict."
Belton Republican Rep. Eric Bedingfield, who serves as chair of the committee, said it is unfortunate that it has taken lawmakers so long to address the issue in such a pointed way. Bedingfield's son died of an opioid overdose last year.
"It's real sad to have to think about it in that fashion because I spent five or six years going through addiction and counseling services with my own son," he said. "Unfortunately, maybe it took his passing to push me over the edge and start trying to drive this train a little faster, a little harder, and try to pull people onto the train with me."
The House panel, which held its first meeting during the last week of the 2017 session, does not have a deadline to offer legislative solutions to opioid abuse.