Vermont Senate, House at Odds Over Police Access to Prescription Drug Database

While illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are often the focus of discussions regarding drug abuse and addiction, some of the most commonly abused and deadly drugs are hiding in plain sight…inside of our medicine cabinets. Since prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Xanax are typically issued by a physician, not dealt on a street corner, many people overlook their potential for abuse, addiction and even death. The National Institutes of Health estimate that 20 percent of all Americans have taken prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

The state legislature in Vermont is taking steps to address the abuse of prescription drugs in its state, which has the 34th worst rate of such abuse. Per capita, Vermont has the second highest rate of people in their twenties that are admitted for treatment of opiate addiction. A report issued by the state’s Prescription Drug Abuse Workgroup, a joint product of the Vermont Departments of Health and Public Safety, called for tougher law enforcement initiatives against the sources of prescription drugs diverted for improper use. Some sources for the illegally distributed drugs include internet sites, forged prescriptions, health care workers, theft and the attainment of prescriptions from multiple physicians.

Last week, the Vermont Senate took a step to enable law enforcement officials in that task by voting to allow police access, without a search warrant, to the state’s prescription database, which is maintained by the Department of Health. The database, which contains the prescription information of state residents, was created in 2006 by a law that specifically provides that law enforcement does not have access to the information. Under the Senate’s plan, police could only access information related to ongoing investigations involving specific commonly abused drugs. Upon request, the Department of Health would provide police with a report containing vital information regarding the person’s prescription history.

Proponents of the Senate’s proposal point out that police presently can walk into a pharmacy without a warrant and obtain the prescription records of suspect individuals. They contend that this new law would simply make it more convenient for police to acquire this same information from a central source. Senate President, John Campbell stated, “We are not allowing police officers any more access than they already are entitled to…[they] should be able to use the technology that is available in order to find those people who are diverting drugs…”

The Senate’s proposal is an amendment to the House version of the bill, which allows police access to the database with a warrant. Lawmakers who oppose the Senate’s amendment appear primarily uncomfortable with the possibility that the absence of a warrant may count as an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Other opponents cite concerns over personal privacy and constituent support for a planned online insurance marketplace, which would include personal health records. Senator Phillip Baruth cited concerns over breaking “a promise” made to residents when the database was established that police would be unable to access their records.

Still, supporters see the Senate proposal as a compromise, stating that police will not have unrestricted access to resident records. They find that the dangers of prescription drug abuse outweigh the privacy risks, considering that last year, deaths resulting from prescription drug overdoses outnumbered murders and car accident-related deaths combined. Senator Dick Sears emphasized this concern when he said, “We believe that we have an epidemic.”