The Senate Committee on Judiciary is poised to vote on a compromise struck with Gov. Peter Shumlin that would allow police access to more information about abuse of prescription drugs without letting them peek into an online prescription monitoring system.
The proposal carries a rider that would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the committee, said he hoped the compromise would quell some concerns that an earlier proposal by the Shumlin administration would allow unfettered access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System, which contains personal information about prescribed drugs.
“My idea was to find a way to deal with this that still protects the interests raised as concerns,” Sears said.
Under an initial proposal from the Shumlin administration, a few specially trained officers would be allowed access to the database if they could demonstrate a bona fide investigation.
The administration’s proposal was watered down in the House, which only approved access to the information in the database when officers had a warrant. They would also need to get the information from the Department of Health rather than directly from the database.
With the compromise, police would be able to access the name, age and address of a patient who they believe may be diverting prescription drugs for illegal use. Police could also receive access to the name and address of the pharmacy and doctors where the patient accessed certain scheduled drugs — generally opiates.
Using this information, the officers could then go to the actual pharmacies and ask for prescription information under a law that was passed in 1968.
The investigation would have to start from a tip from a health care provider.
Sears said a proposal will also require the head of the Department of Public Safety to develop guidelines for all law enforcement officers to use in exercising their authority to access the information.
He said law enforcement’s desire to access to the information in the database is reasonable.
“We have an epidemic,” he said.
While police can access private pharmacy records by simply going to the pharmacy, they have claimed in testimony that the process is onerous, and often people who are abusing drugs visit pharmacies all over the state.
The proposal, Sears said, would streamline the process without allowing expanded access.
“We’re not providing any more information than would be available through an extensive investigation requiring them to go to every pharmacy in Windham Country, for example,” he said.
Sears said his committee is generally in agreement on their proposal, which they will vote on Thursday morning.
But the other group of lawmakers hearing testimony on the bill are more skeptical.
The Senate Committee on Health and Welfare brought in two judges to testify Wednesday morning on the requirements for police to obtain a search warrant.
“We have reservations about allowing access to private records on a hunch,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, the committee chair.
The underlying bill is currently in the Health Care committee, and the administration’s proposal would have to be attached as an amendment to that bill.
The law enforcement access issue has caused tension throughout the legislative session. Law enforcement and the Shumlin administration have focused on the widespread prescription drug abuse problem in the state, while the local American Civil Liberties Union has argued the access would violate the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said his department could live with the compromise struck by the administration and the Judiciary committee.
“It will allow us to do what the objective is and that is to stop the flow of opiates that are being diverted by people who have an addiction,” he said.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the local ACLU, said allowing the proposed type of access would open the door for more attempts to get personal digital information.
He said law enforcement should get a warrant instead.
“If you have a tip from a doctor or pharmacist, the chance is good you could get a warrant,” he said. “I don’t understand the reluctance on part of law enforcement to use a mechanism that’s been in place for over 200 years to protect privacy.”
The bill will likely see debate on both the marijuana decriminalization issue and drug database access issue on the Senate floor. The provisions of the bill could potentially be split apart. Some senators support marijuana decriminalization but oppose police access to the drug database and vice versa.
Ayer said her committee appears to be split on the issue. Sens. Kevin Mullin and John Campbell appear to support access to the database, but the other three members on the committee are more leery, she said.
“We’re reluctant to open personal medical records to public scrutiny when we set them up with the idea that that would never be the case,” Ayer said.
When the Legislature passed a law creating the drug database in 2005, it explicitly stated that law enforcement officers would not have access to the system.