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Protecting privacy is part of police work

The top drug problem in West Virginia is abuse of prescription drugs, especially time-released opioids - painkillers - that junkies alter for a cheap thrill.

To battle this abuse, sheriff's deputies would like to access a prescription drug tracking system that the state maintains. At present, only 15 state troopers and 15 drug task forces have access to this database.

Lawmakers have said no to expanding access for three years.

They should say no a fourth time. While supporting the local sheriff in enforcing the state's laws is important, protecting the privacy of citizens is a significant concern.

Doctor-patient privacy is important in the treatment of medical conditions. Many people are reluctant to seek a doctor's care for ailments they consider embarrassing.

Just having the state collect this information should be enough to unnerve people.

In addition to the 15 troopers in the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the database is used by 15 drug task forces that cover 20 counties around the state.

At a legislative hearing on Monday, Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas made the case for giving sheriffs in the 35 other counties direct access to the database. He is the president of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association.

He pointed to the case of Dr. Anita Dawson of Milton, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison on Monday for aiding and abetting in obtaining controlled substances by misrepresentation, fraud, forgery and subterfuge.

She had prescribed nearly 6,000 pills containing oxycodone and 220 pills for the painkiller Endocet for one patient in a three-year period.

"That'd be a handy piece of information when you're working a case," McComas said.

However, the risk of medical privacy violations should be carefully weighed against the needs of law enforcement.

Sheriffs who want information from the database currently must contact someone with access authorization or obtain a court order. They worry about this causing delays in time-sensitive investigations.   

Perhaps lawmakers can provide resources to improve the efficiency of this system and ensure sheriffs get the information they need for investigations in a timely manner.

Notably, both the executive director of the state Board of Pharmacy and Cpl. Wendy Comer of the State Police's drug diversion unit oppose expanding access to the database. Comer said there have been no reported cases of misuse since the database went online in 2005.

No one wants to hinder drug investigations, but the privacy of the 1.8 million West Virginians who are not abusing prescription drugs must be protected.



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