Vt. House, Senate Still Disagree On Drug Database Issue

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One of the last major unresolved issues at the Statehouse involves whether to give law enforcement officials access to the state’s prescription drug database without a warrant, and it’s an issue where Governor Peter Shumlin is trying to influence the outcome of the debate.

The issue basically comes down to this question: Should law enforcement officials be allowed to search for information on the state’s prescription drug database without a warrant? The Senate says yes – the House says no.

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears wants a group of police investigators to have access to the database when they get a tip that an individual is illegally trying to obtain narcotic drugs. He said this will let them check the person’s drug history and regional pharmacy records. "This will help law enforcement to do its work which it has to do," Sears said. Law enforcement is unable to get a warrant under current law because they can’t build a probable cause case with just a tip from a health care provider."

Governor Peter Shumlin jumped into the debate when he held an afternoon press conference to strongly criticize the House for requiring the police to get a warrant. "The House of Representatives is being irresponsible on this issue," Shumlin said. "We have an opportunity to reduce crime, to reduce drug addiction, to make our streets safer and to stop spending millions and millions of dollars treating tragedy."

House Human Services chairwoman Ann Pugh rejected the Governor’s suggestion that a failure to adopt his plan will lead to increased crime and she said the House is protecting the privacy of Vermonters. She said,   "To say that the weight of Vermonters dying rests on whether or not police can have access without a warrant is unwarranted."

Late in the day, the Senate suggested that the state’s one judicial officer be allowed to grant police access to the database. The director of the Vermont Chapter of the ACLU, Allen Gilbert, had serious problems with the Senate’s new plan. "It’s a very strange proposal," he said. "These are the people that decide whether you have to pay your speeding ticket or not and all of sudden we’re going to give them the authority to say whether police can have access to information about Vermonters prescription drugs ? It just doesn’t meet the straight face test," Gilbert said.

The House also rejected the new Senate approach and now the conference committee will decide if the underlying legislation should be saved or not.

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