Some Republicans and Democrats disputed the need to give law enforcement access to a statewide database of drug prescriptions, but a proposal including that change won final approval in the North Carolina legislature Thursday.
Many House members were supportive of the bill as a whole but criticized the component regarding law enforcement access to the Controlled Substance Reporting System. The system contains information from any doctor who has recorded prescribing controlled substances to their patients.
The bill would add felonies for law enforcement officials who misuse the information.
Rep. Greg Murphy, a Greenville Republican and a primary sponsor of the bill backed by Attorney General Josh Stein, said law enforcement needs fast access to address the opioid addiction crisis.
“We have gangs coming in from other states that are blanketing the state, and are coming in with fraudulent prescriptions, blanketing pharmacies, getting these drugs quickly and quickly moving out of the state,” Murphy said. “The problem is now, as the law stands, it takes five to seven days to get a judge to sign off on something.”
Murphy said law enforcement will not have open access to the database. They will only see the data of the individual they request; the bill “does not allow a fishing expedition.”
In addition to defending police access to the system, Murphy said the bill will help address a shortage of health-care officials in the state to combat the opioid epidemic.
He said the department of psychiatry at the East Carolina University School of Medicine would institute a statewide telepsychiatry program, allowing people with addictions to call or video-conference with a behavioral-health specialist.
“A lot of our rural areas do not have access to psychologists and mental health individuals,” said Murphy.
Donald McDonald, the executive director of Addiction Professionals of North Carolina, said the bill further criminalizes addiction and illness rather than treating it.
“The HOPE Act is an enforcement bill that is kind of mischaracterized as a prevention bill. We know from decades of American history that criminalization and sentencing has had no impact on the prevention of substance use,” McDonald said.
McDonald said his group's members are confused as to why the enforcement in the bill seems to be focused on individuals rather than on trafficking groups bringing heroin and fentanyl into the state.
McDonald agrees with Murphy there aren't enough behavioral health officials in the state. McDonald said the solution is simple.
“More people are dying and more people are going to prison, and we are not expanding Medicaid,” McDonald said.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid since the Affordable Care Act provided that option, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Getting a warrant
Rep. Robert Reives II, a Sanford Democrat, said he agrees with 95 percent of the bill. The 5 percent he doesn’t like allows law enforcement access to the database without first obtaining a warrant.
“That’s just not the experience. In the judicial district I practice in, we have one superior court judge,” said Reives, who is also a lawyer. “I’ve never had an officer talk to me about an access problem or getting a judge to sign off a warrant.”
Reives submitted an amendment, which failed, to ensure warrants would still be needed to access the database. Murphy said the amendment would have gutted the bill.
The concerns were bipartisan.
“It’s clearly an attempt to circumvent the search warrant requirement, which we’ve done for years,” said Rep. Joe John, a Raleigh Democrat and former judge of the Court of Appeals.
“It’s one little piece at a time. That’s how you eat an 800-pound elephant, one bite at a time. That’s how you lose your liberty, one bite at a time,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican.
“I would love to see this bill passed. But the only way I could support this bill is to require a warrant to go into my records, your records, everybody’s records,” Speciale said.
An amendment added to the bill specified the conditions under which law enforcement would be allowed access to the database.
“We are sensitive to the confidential nature of the prescription information, so this amendment clarifies that the investigator must be involved in a bona fide active investigation,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, said.