Buyers of Medicine to Be Fingerprinted

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
July 11, 2001 12:00 am

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PULASKI, VA — Patients in the small, southwest Virginia town of Pulaski will have to provide fingerprints at the area’s six pharmacies to get OxyContin, as part of a novel law enforcement effort to curb widespread abuse of the prescription painkiller, The Washington Post reported.

According to the Post, Pulaski police plan to meet with pharmacists next week to show them how to use a chemical fingerprinting system that employs invisible ink to “sign” documents for authenticity.

Patients will be asked to leave their fingerprint signature on prescription papers so police can track cases of fraud.

Civil liberties advocates oppose the fingerprinting plan, which they say violates the rights of people who use OxyContin for legitimate medical purposes.

“This is an insidious scheme by police to circumvent the Fourth Amendment,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

“Because these patients have not broken any laws, nor are they suspected of doing so, the police cannot demand their fingerprints,” he explained.

“However, nothing prevents a pharmacist from requiring fingerprints from a customer as a condition of doing business there.”

“So,” he continued, “the police teach the pharmacists how to take fingerprints to the police. There is something terribly wrong with this picture.”

Police hope the technology, regularly used to prevent payroll fraud and for cashing checks, will stem the increasing number of fake prescriptions for OxyContin. Police will be able to use the fingerprints to ferret out suspects and link them to illegal transactions.

The system is not used anywhere else for prescription drugs except Louisiana, where doctors use it for several sensitive narcotics.

“Anything that will stop the flow onto the streets we’ll be happy with,” said Detective Marshall Dowdy of the Pulaski police. “This is a seemingly never-ending battle.”

OxyContin, which comes in a time-release pill and is similar to morphine, has emerged as one of the most widely abused drugs throughout Appalachia.

It has been linked to at least 43 deaths in southwest Virginia since 1997 and has been blamed for significant rises in crime — from fraud and theft to violence and murder — throughout the region.

Pain patients who rely on OxyContin for relief consider it a miracle drug, but abusers are drawn to the pills’ purity and availability. They crush the pills and snort them or inject them for a euphoric, heroin-like high.

Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Connecticut-based manufacturer of OxyContin, supports the fingerprinting as long as it is applied to all controlled substances and is not limited to OxyContin.

Company officials believe singling out OxyContin will simply lead criminals to go to other pharmacies or abuse other potent prescription drugs.

“Any identification technology that does not discriminate against patients or stigmatize them will be a valuable aid to reduce prescription fraud and aid law enforcement in their investigations,” said J. David Haddox, senior medical director for health policy at Purdue Pharma.

“There’s no question in my mind that there are instances now where patients are being under-treated or quite frankly don’t have access to this drug when this drug is what works best for them. And that’s an absolute tragedy.”

Pulaski officials said the fingerprinting would begin only with OxyContin prescriptions, but could be expanded later.

To make the print, a patient swipes an index finger across a pad, picking up an invisible chemical. The patient then places the same finger on a treated paper sticker, which almost immediately displays a blue, smudge-proof print. During investigations, police can scan the print and compare it with local and national databases, as if it had been taken with ink.

“In the end,” said the ACLU’s Kent Willis, “innocent patients who have done nothing wrong but be sick enough to have this drug prescribed for them find themselves treated as criminals.”

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