DEA Sues Utah For Prescription Drug Database Access

By McCarton Ackerman 07/13/16

The DEA wants access to the database to investigate a “medical professional” who is prescribing pills to a criminal organization.

DEA Sues Utah For Prescription Drug Database Access

In a potentially groundbreaking case surrounding states' rights, the Drug Enforcement Administration is taking Utah to court and demanding a judge grant the agency access to the state’s prescription drug database.

Local news outlet FOX 13 reported that the state has not been cooperative and refused to grant federal agents access to its prescription drug database. The DEA had served administrative subpoenas to the Utah Division of Professional Licensing and Utah’s Department of Commerce. The agency claimed it’s investigating a “licensed medical professional” in the Salt Lake City area, who is allegedly prescribing pills to people who are part of a “criminal organization” with connections overseas.

Access to the database now requires a warrant after state lawmakers recently switched the rules. The change came about after police conducting a search into missing medications had accessed the records of Unified Fire Authority firefighters. Criminal defense attorney Greg Skordas explained to FOX 13 that the DEA’s request is tricky because it goes beyond the doctor in question and would require access to confidential patient information.

"Administrative subpoenas are issued based on a very low standard. They're really just investigative," he said. "Whereas a warrant requires a higher level of what we call probable cause. You have to go to a judge and say, 'I have probable cause to believe the information is where I'm looking,' where an investigative subpoena you go to a judge and say, 'I'm curious.' It's all going to come to a head probably with the United States Supreme Court or with the circuit courts.”

In February 2014, a Florida judge ruled that government officials can search the state's prescription drug monitoring database. The unsuccessful lawsuit was brought by Daytona Beach lawyer Michael Lambert, who had his medical records from the database accessed by state attorneys during an unrelated forgery investigation. 

The DEA has been on the receiving end of lawsuits from states as well. In May 2014, Kentucky sued the federal agency over an “illegal” hemp seed seizure, claiming it violated federal law. The DEA had seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds from Italy that were on their way to be used in a state industrial hemp growing pilot project, though Kentucky had effectively legalized industrial hemp in 2013 and President Obama had signed a measure that February which allowed states to grow it for research purposes. The DEA eventually relented and allowed the hemp seed import to reach its destination.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.