Judge says warrant needed to check drug database

Of the Associated Press

PORTLAND — A federal judge in Portland ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency must get a warrant before accessing Oregon's pharmaceutical-monitoring database.

The state created the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to track prescriptions and help health-care providers identify abuse. But federal agents want information from the database to help with their drug investigations.

State law said police needed a court order to check the database. But the DEA asserted that federal law allowed the agency to access the information using what is known as an administrative subpoena, which does not involve a judge or require the government to show probable cause.

The state sued in 2012 and was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Although there is not an absolute right to privacy in prescription information, as patients must expect that physicians, pharmacists and other medical personnel can and must access their records, it is more than reasonable for patients to believe that law enforcement agencies will not have unfettered access to their records,” U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty wrote in his 16-page opinion.

ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler praised the decision as a victory for privacy.

“The court rightly rejected the government's extreme argument that patients give up their privacy rights by receiving medical treatment from doctors and pharmacists,” he said in a statement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Danielson argued the case on behalf of the DEA. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Oregon lawmakers approved the prescription database in 2009, and it became fully operational two years later. A pharmacy must electronically report information about the quantity and type of drug dispensed, as well as identifying information about the patient and doctor who prescribed the medication.

About 7 million prescription records are uploaded to the system each year, according to Haggerty's opinion.

According to court records, the DEA on Sept. 11, 2012, issued an administrative subpoena demanding the prescription records of a patient. The DEA issued another one six days later, requesting a summary of all drugs prescribed by two doctors. The state balked, starting the legal fight.

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