MONTPELIER — Balancing the need to fight a prescription drug abuse “epidemic” with the desire to protect Vermonters’ constitutional privacy rights was the focus of a passionate debate Wednesday on the Senate floor that lasted nearly three hours.
The Senate eventually voted 18-11 to give police access to information in the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System without requiring them to first get a warrant.
Law enforcement officials and lawmakers argue the information will help police detect and prosecute people who are illegally diverting prescription drugs to abuse or sell on the black market.
The House already passed the bill the Senate considered Wednesday and included a requirement that police get a warrant before using the database, and several senators strongly urged their fellow lawmakers to keep that requirement intact.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat, said he doesn’t deny there is a problem with prescription drug abuse.
“I just would not say that chipping away at our constitutional rights is the solution,” Pollina said.
Sen. Philip Baruth, a Chittenden County Democrat, said he went back and looked at news articles from 2006 when the Legislature debated creating the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System, which contains patient and prescriber data.
At the time, privacy advocates didn’t want a database created at all, and the compromise in 2006 was to ban police from accessing the information, Baruth said.
“Now what we’re seeing today in the new compromise is they will be able to almost directly access it,” Baruth said.
Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat, said the founders of the United States struck the original compromise when they adopted the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects against illegal searches and seizures.
The Vermont Senate should not tinker with the age-old process of requiring judges to issue warrants before police can get private information, McCormack said.
“People have bled and died for that to be our system,” McCormack said. “Let us not monkey with it.”
As some senators attacked the amendment from the Senate Judiciary Committee that would allow warrantless access, others tried to remind lawmakers why they were considering the bill in the first place.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that the Senate should not fear his committee’s amendment because it allows such limited amounts of information to be released to specially trained drug diversion officers, and there are only four such officers in the state.
“I don’t think some of the opponents of the Judiciary Committee’s amendment have actually read the amendment,” Sears said.
Under the amendment, police would request data from the Vermont Health Department. They would get the pharmacies that have provided three categories of drugs to the subjects of an investigation — without getting the specific names of the drugs. Police would also learn what health care providers prescribed drugs to the suspects and the identity of the suspects.
In addition, Sears pointed out, police can, under current law, go to pharmacies and get Vermonters’ prescription records without a warrant.
The information from the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System would simply allow police to more easily “connect the dots,” Sears said.
“If we were suggesting unfettered access, I’d be voting no,” Sears said.
After approving the amendment, the Senate gave preliminary approval to the underlying legislation related to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System and is expected to give it final approval soon.
The Senate’s final vote on the bill will set up a clash with the House, where lawmakers have said they stand by their decision to require a warrant.
Gov. Peter Shumlin supports giving police warrantless access to the data.
A marijuana decriminalization amendment attached to the prescription drug bill was struck down because it was not germane to the underlying bill.
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