North Carolina Bill Would Make Prescription Records Available to Police Without a Warrant

America’s opioid epidemic is a grave public health issue, one that experts and a growing national consensus say we need to approach with solutions based in science and treatment. Unfortunately, some lawmakers haven’t gotten the memo and want to continue with the failed and inhumane strategies of the past: harsher penalties, overcriminalization, and the erosion of people’s rights.

The latest example comes from North Carolina. A new proposal ostensibly aimed at combatting the opioid crisis would give local law enforcement sweeping, unprecedented power to look through a person’s entire history of prescription drug use if they are under investigation for any drug crime, even possessing a tiny amount of any controlled substance. 

Like in most states, in North Carolina people’s prescription records are stored in two places: at the pharmacy itself and in the state’s Controlled Substance Reporting System, a secure database that tracks controlled substance prescriptions in order to give doctors better information about their patients’ needs. State law currently imposes restrictions on law enforcement access to both of these sources in order to safeguard patients’ private medical information against unjustified search. 

Sponsors of the North Carolina bill say unfettered access to the database will help law enforcement “in their efforts to investigate and prosecute individuals who obtain legal prescription medication by illegal means, as well as those who distribute illicit medication and illegal opioids.” But this bill, the first of its kind in the nation, is much broader in scope. 

First, it erodes civil liberties by eliminating the requirement for law enforcement to obtain a court order before searching someone’s prescription records in the database, a crucial protection for our constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. In fact, the ACLU has gone to court to argue that the Fourth Amendment requires police to get a search warrant based on probable cause before accessing prescription database records. 

Second, it opens up a person’s entire history of prescription records at the pharmacy after a single drug charge. Arrested on suspicion of possessing a little marijuana? Under the North Carolina bill, law enforcement could look at your entire pharmaceutical history, without any warrant or court order. Do you use birth control? Take medication to treat depression or anxiety? Ever taken antibiotics to treat a sexually transmitted disease? North Carolina law enforcement would get to know all that and more. 

Giving law enforcement officers the power to snoop around people’s medicine cabinets without any oversight will do little to combat the opioid epidemic. Rather, it would violate the rights of innocent people and further stigmatize people with substance abuse issues, making it harder for them to receive proper treatment. That’s why it’s been opposed by groups like the North Carolina Substance Use Disorder Federation and Addiction Professionals of North Carolina, which called the bill a “backwards culture shift away from treating substance use disorder as a disease and toward criminalizing illness.” 

As currently devised, the state’s Controlled Substance Reporting System allows pharmacists and doctors to see what prescriptions a patient has already been given in order to prevent over-prescription. The program was envisioned as a way to identify individuals with substance use disorders and refer them to treatment. And law enforcement can already access that database with a court order. 

Expanding law enforcement’s access to pharmacy records while eroding privacy protections, however, could open the entire system to abuse. We know this from experiences in other states. 

In 1996, Utah began tracking controlled substance prescriptions in the Utah Controlled Substance Database. Although the program was intended to help prevent drug abuse, it was discovered in 2014 that a Utah detective used the database to access the prescription records of all 480 employees in Utah’s largest fire agency without judicial oversight and improperly charged at least two employees with crimes they did not commit based on misinterpretation of their prescription histories.

In response, Utah’s legislature amended the law in 2015, requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a probable cause warrant from a court before they can gain access to the database. Many other states now require a warrant or court order based on probable cause in order for law enforcement to access prescription drug information.

When devising strategies to address the opioid crisis, lawmakers should focus on public health solutions endorsed by the medical and treatment communities. Giving law enforcement officers more power to violate people’s rights and trample on our cherished civil liberties is never the answer.

View comments (31)
Read the Terms of Use

Dr. Timothy Leary

"Warrent? I don't need no stinking warrant.": J. Edgar Hoover circa 1965


Innocent people would not be in police custody, they are only talking about while in custody? Also we need to know about the mass shooters chemistry and history. Is it drugs or mental illnes.....I suspect it is both. It is not a natural act and goes against our matrix moral code and training. Killer drugs are here. We're going to have to catch them sooner when they are showing signs. Monitoring closer the ones that have mental related prescriptions. It is very hard for a person with ADHD for instance or Bipolar, or clinical depression, to remember to take their meds consistantly. It needs to be a safe system and work the bugs out so it's safe for all. Get my freedoms where I can these days. Prayers


You can keep your prayers and keep your peeping eyes off other people's prescription histories. Your whole thesis is one of ignorance. If you want to live in a state where such privacy is non-existent there are plenty of authoritarian nations you could move to. But I think you'd find them none too pleasant.


Uh, what? Now you want to monitor me because I take anti-depressants? What on earth?


I was once arrested for 'attempted murder' because I defended myself against a trans-basher (and won) I was held for 4 days without arraignment. Put in the men's cells with a one-piece jumper so I had to bare my breasts to pee. Found out later that the guy had a string of priors and was high on coke and had a blood alcohol of 0.25. DA dropped the charges in a hurry and off the record recommended I sue the county. For which I found out later there was a 6mo statute of limitations. In the meanwhile, the arresting officer had told the local paper that the 'victim' claimed he was engaged to me, found out I was trans and I tried to kill him to protect my 'secret'. I was an adult literacy tutor, I'd never had as much as a parking ticket prior to that. None the less, local newspaper ran the headline, 'Transsexual arrested in assault!' and gave my name (my legal name, and the dead name that the cop had stuck on me when he put me in jail even though it wasn't my legal name) and the street I lived on. My landlord demanded I move, I lost my job, I was labelled a violent criminal to all my neighbors (and outed about a part of my life I'd have rather kept private as it is only relevant to myself and someone I am in a relationship with) and so on.

So no. You're very naive, and I don't mean that in a mean way. Prior to this experience, I was too. Innocent people are taken into police custody. There are bad cops (worth noting that the detective on the case was not a bad cop, the police and guards were pretty nice except for that one officer who it was my bad luck to be first on scene)

Bad cop like that would use my dangerous history of estrogen use as a tool for his own agenda somehow.

If you want to do something about opiates, go after the drug companies. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than Heroin and every bit as addictive. What the means is that's EASIER to get addicted to because the person using it can't break it down into small enough amounts to manage their pain effectively. They get doses much stronger than they need and that raises their pain threshold. Then when it's cut off, it hurts them bad. Fentanyl exists because the patents expired on heroin and other drugs. Generics become available, the company that made the drug then releases a huge amount of data on addiction, it gets negative press, dropped by doctors, and the next-shiny-expensive-patent-opiod takes their shelf spot, promising to be less addictive (this time for sure!) Big pharma makes bank, people's lives are destroyed.

Invasion of privacy is not going to solve anything. Addicts are a symptom, not the disease.

For added fun and education, read up on the drug Ibogaine. Particularly how it relates to opioids.


You’re innocent until proven guilty. Anyone who hasn’t been to court yet is innocent. You could be simply being held for a hearing in family court. You could just be getting sober or detoxing, even if you aren’t charged with a crime. Naïveté kills.


Are you saying that you think that people who are guilty of committing a crime, regardless of what that crime is, don't deserve to have rights? Because that's absolutely disgusting. Everyone deserves their federal right to privacy, regardless of whether or not they're in police custody. BY THE WAY, just being in custody doesn't make you automatically guilty of a crime. Innocent people are arrested everyday. That's why we have a judicial system to begin with; otherwise you'd go straight from being arrest to being sent to prison. Also, to address the other side of your comment, mentally ill people are also deserving of their right to privacy. And just as a final note, mentally ill people are more likely to be the VICTIM of a crime and rather than the perpetrator. F*ck you.


...and that’s what search warrants are for!


Innocent people most certainly do end up in police custody; that's why we have a court system - to ensure innocent people are permitted to resume their lives rather than being incarcerated. This is just one more step in turning the US into an Orwellian police state.


Add/hd meds don’t always work I know from personal experience. Bipolar meds most of the time are a joke and don’t always work after a while because they build up in the system. Also anything done without a warrant is wrong and open to abuse. I pray you never have to experience the negative aspects of the law abusing this.


Stay Informed