UofSC professor says 300 students have been drugged in past 90 days; lawmaker hopes bill will help

Updated: Apr. 14, 2021 at 10:36 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Legally, there’s no such thing as a bar in South Carolina, a state senator pointed out Wednesday.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, said South Carolina’s constitution states no restaurant can serve liquor unless they “primarily and substantially” serve food. But now he wants to better define what those words mean.

He hopes a bill requiring restaurants with liquor licenses to make at least 51% of their revenue from meals and non-alcoholic beverages will reduce alcohol-reduced crime in the state, particularly among minors.

“What is happening now is allowing…several hundred girls being drugged, we’ve had fights, we’ve had shootings, we’ve had drunk drivers,” Harpootlian said.

He added SC Highway Patrol has told him the street running through the Five Points neighborhood near the University of South Carolina, an area known for being a center for student nightlife, is the most dangerous in the state.

Harpootlian has been working to shut down businesses in his district that don’t comply with state law requiring 10% of revenue to come from food and non-alcoholic drinks. But he is now taking his Midlands fight statewide.

He says the businesses serving underage students cheap drinks are the ones he is trying to target with this bill.

“Our Supreme Court has ruled 10% is not enough,” Harpootlian said. “I think it’s got to be a substantial part of your business. You are not one of these saloon bars in Five Points that is serving popcorn and are pouring dollar shots down people’s gullets.”

Women’s self-defense instructor Shannon Henry says this legislation would encourage businesses to develop a reputation beyond being a go-to spot for underage drinking.

“More recently we have seen an increase in reports of involuntary druggings or drug-related crimes,” she says.

While Henry says every crime needs to be thoroughly investigated to figure out the true perpetrator, getting people drunk for cheap and broadcasting that drunk people as some of these businesses are doing is like sending out a beacon to potential predators.

“My fears from a threat assessment level is the wolves will show up beyond anything we are seeing right now,” she said. “There are good and bad people in the world and they don’t wear a shirt that says, ‘I’m a bad person and I do bad things when nobody is looking.”

According to her survey of students, about 300 say they have gotten drugged at Columbia bars in the past 90 days*. Most of them are women, and some say they woke up in places they’ve never been before.

Her data shows most of the women didn’t come forward because of shame but many others didn’t come forward out of fear of repercussions for drinking underage. In the vast majority of the cases, the victims reported they were drinking vodka when they were drugged.

To help stop this, Harpootlian says he is willing to negotiate with fellow lawmakers to craft a bill that is in line with state law and stops businesses from serving alcohol to minors.

“They are big concrete rooms with a concrete floor and a bar in one end and they let underage kids in and entice them,” Harpootlian says. “We saw the social media one of them says, ‘Come to Drunk Thursday’ or they have a shot called the Jolly Rancher. That’s a kid’s candy. Why are they selling a drink? Because these are kids they are appealing to and that’s my complaint.”

In a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, brought up concerns that this bill could potentially shut down legitimate businesses, and legislation should instead focus on restricting underage drinking. She also said the bill sounds like a Columbia problem, not a statewide problem.

Sen. Harpootlian says his end goal is simply to, “do away with these large saloons…whose business model relies on serving alcohol in massive quantities to people under the age of 21.”

*After this story was originally published, the Columbia Police Department shared the following about criminal cases involving women being drugged:

“Last year, the Columbia Police Department (CPD) learned through Crimestoppers and social media posts that females believed their drinks were spiked with narcotics.

“The initial allegations were not reported to CPD.

“As part of being a proactive policing agency, CPD’s Organized Crime and Narcotics Unit was assigned to investigate the claims. CPD is working with partner agency, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

“To date, CPD has taken 7 incident reports regarding the allegations, 2 of which were self-initiated. (Meaning, in some cases, officers contacted the females to initiate and generate a report).

“To date, two of the allegations have been substantiated. The remaining cases/allegations remain under investigation.”

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