MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Gov. Peter Shumlin in his State of the State address in January cited an "epidemic" of prescription drug abuse in Vermont as justification for allowing police to get access without search warrants to a Health Department database that tracks the medicines Vermont doctors are prescribing for their patients.
Shumlin said his aim was to give "law enforcement the tools they need to track down abusive access so we can fight our prescription drug epidemic. This growing problem is so frightening because while FDA-approved prescription opiates are easy to get, many are just as addicting and dangerous as street heroin and crack cocaine."
With debate over no-warrant police access to the database coming to a head as the legislative session winds down in Montpelier, critics are questioning the severity of the problem and whether it justifies what they see as an erosion of privacy rights granted by the U.S. and Vermont constitutions.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes warrantless searches of the database, pointed to data on the Health Department website indicating that the prescription drug abuse problem may be waning already, without granting expanded search powers to the Department of Public Safety's Vermont State Police drug investigators.
"The most recent survey data indicates that the prevalence of prescription drug misuse in Vermont is declining or remaining steady for all drug categories including Rx opiates," said a Health Department report dated this month. "This appears to be a consistent pattern across several independent surveys." The report went on to cite "a low level of student involvement in both opiates ... and stimulants."
A bar chart in the report shows deaths tied to prescription opiates declining every year from 2006 to 2011. More detailed data were available only through 2009. The data showed several types of abuse peaking around 2006 and then starting to decline. "Non-medical use of pain relievers" dropped in all age groups between 2006 and 2009, from 5.1 percent of the general population to 4.6 percent overall.
Vermont dropped from 11th highest in the country in 2006 to 34th highest in prescription in non-medical use of pain relievers between 2003 and 2009, the data showed.
Barbara Cimaglio, deputy health commissioner and head of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said Vermont remains in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Overdose deaths have been cut nearly in half in the past six years, but still numbered more than 40 last year, Health Department data showed.