Nobody wants strangers riffling through their medicine cabinet — least of all the police. But that’s what the North Carolina state sheriff’s association is seeking — access to state computer records that identify which residents have prescriptions for painkillers and other controlled substances — according to the News & Observer.The cops want to know if any citizen in the state has a prescription for Xanax, Ambien, Oxycontin or Percoset, without having to get a warrant or even offer a specific reason. The proposed measure is aimed at facilitating drug arrests and reducing prescription-drug misuse. Except, I don’t think it’s clear that increasing law enforcement’s access to patients’ private information would help either cause. (Currently, the state database is accessible only by doctors and pharmacists who want to ensure that patients aren’t getting prescriptions from multiple physicians.)
For one thing, the overwhelming majority of teenagers who misuse prescription medications get them from a friend or family member, with 55% reporting these sources, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Another 11% steal the drugs or forge prescriptions — so they wouldn’t be in the state database either. About 22% of teens taking prescription painkillers get the them from a doctor, and the vast majority of these teens see only one doctor, rather than “doctor shopping.”
In terms of overdose prescription-drug-related deaths, again, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that most of those who died were not receiving prescriptions from doctors themselves — 61% of overdose victims in a West Virginia study had drugs in their bodies for which they had no prescription. Over half had no legitimate prescriptions at all. Moreover, 95% of those who died were clearly misusing the medications: these were not patients taking medication as prescribed.
Of course, that’s not to dismiss the problem of accidental overdose or death due to prescription painkillers, which is increasing nationwide. But giving the police access to all records of prescribed controlled substances seems more likely to invade patient privacy and potentially jeopardize the medical care of legitimate patients than to help find addicts or dealers.
Then again, it might be interesting to see who’s on Viagra.