State police target drug crimes but pharmacies wary

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(Host) State police say they’re trying to tackle a growing problem. Increasingly, drug traffickers are turning to pharmacies to steal prescription drugs – or to get them illegally.

State police decided to crack down, but their effort was derailed almost as soon as it started. Pharmacists complained troopers were on a witch hunt and authorities were forced to back off.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, state police say they’re regrouping and plan to try again.

(Sneyd) There were around 70 drug overdoses in Vermont through November and about a third of them involved prescription drugs, such as painkillers.

The state police commander, Colonel Jim Baker, says that demanded a response from law enforcement.

(Baker) “We realized that we were going to have to do something about trying to put an end to that, just like we would try to refocus our efforts if there was a spike in fatal car accidents, which, in fact, in ’06 there was. We adjusted our strategy midsummer and reduced fatal car crashes.”

(Sneyd) There are a couple of ways criminals get prescriptions.

First, they steal them. State police say that’s why there have been a number of robberies from pharmacies. Investigations are still under way on some of those crimes.

Criminals have another strategy, though. They can steal prescription pads from a doctor’s office and forge a prescription.

Or they can “doctor shop” – going from physician to physician getting the same prescription.

And they can “pharmacy shop,” too, getting those prescriptions filled at a number of stores to make detection tougher.

That’s part of the reason state police decided to fan out and visit pharmacies late this fall.

It didn’t take long before there was an uproar from pharmacists. That’s because at three stores, state police demanded lists of everyone who had filled a prescription for a Class Two drug.

That’s the class of narcotics that Baker says has been the cause of the overdose deaths.

Jim Marmar works at the Woodstock Pharmacy and is president of the Vermont Pharmacists Association. He says the approach was ham-handed.

(Marmar) “We do work in close connection with state police. But we’re not interested in doing witch hunts or fishing expeditions for the state police.”

(Sneyd) State police suspended the operation and promised better training. Baker plans to meet with the Pharmacists Association later this month to explain what troopers are doing and why. He wants to resume the probe soon after the meeting.

But the American Civil Liberties Union questions whether it’s needed at all.

Allen Gilbert heads the Vermont ACLU.

(Gilbert) “It’s always hard to know when raids are being conducted of three different pharmacies in three different counties, exactly what the problem might be. We think that going after somebody’s pharmacy records, even if you suspect of them of a crime, should be subjected tothe same warrant requirement that police have to get to seize any other kind of evidence.”

(Sneyd) Gilbert points out that a federal health privacy law appears to be in conflict with a state statute that allows troopers to demand records without a warrant.

He says he believes the issue could be back before the Legislature this winter.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

AP Photo/Rob Swanson: Police investigate an armed robbery at a South Hero pharmacy in 2006.

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