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Local police expand roles in drug war

Can access data on prescriptions

Local police who are investigating the illegal distribution of powerful painkillers will have access to a state database tracking prescriptions for the drugs under rules approved by health officials last week. The expansion of the Prescription Monitoring Program comes just as local departments are being asked to take on more responsibility for the drug cases.

The State Police last month closed an eight-member drug diversion unit created in 1974 to investigate illegal distribution of prescription drugs, to narrow a $3 million budget gap.

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Prescription drug abuse has been an intractable problem in Massachusetts for years, and State Police spokesman David Procopio said the agency was reluctant to eliminate the unit. But the expansion of the monitoring program to local law enforcement officials and other agencies “mitigated a little bit of the concern we had,” he said.

In addition to local police, a State Police narcotics unit and investigators attached to each of the district attorney’s offices will investigate diversion of prescription drugs, Procopio said. Federal offices, including the US Drug Enforcement Administration, also play a role in the state. Under the new rules, those groups will also gain access to the online database, in which pharmacists are required to record each prescription they fill.

“We’ll try to fill the gaps,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey.

Dr. Alan Woodward, a member of the state Public Health Council, which approved the rules expanding the database program Wednesday, said he was concerned about the drug unit’s closure. “Doctor shopping” by someone seeking the drugs often occurs in multiple communities, he said, so a State Police unit was more suited to investigate than local officials.

“Really, this is bad timing, at best, and really counteractive to the intent of this statute,” he said.

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Adele Audet, assistant director of the Drug Control Program, said the state Department of Public Health had worked closely with the diversion unit. “I really don’t know what the impact [of the closure] will be,” she told the council members.

Audet said her office is working on developing a training program for local law enforcement.

Harold Cox, council member and associate dean at Boston University School of Public Health, said he was concerned that expansion of the program could encroach on the privacy of people who are lawfully taking the medications, “even in the name of protecting them.”

Audet said law enforcement officials would not be permitted to browse the data. They would be given access if they have an open investigation, and the department could conduct audits on how they use the database after that.

The changes approved by the council last week were outlined in a 2010 law. Another measure passed last year requires providers to consult the database before they prescribe one of the powerful prescription drugs to a patient who is new to their practice.

The law also requires doctors to be automatically enrolled in the monitoring program when they get a new or renewed license for prescribing such drugs. Previously, the program was voluntary and enrollment was low.

The department staff probably will propose rules implementing that law in the next few months. It also will consider requiring information about patients certified to use medical marijuana to be entered into the database.

Massachusetts voters in November approved a ballot measure allowing patients with debilitating medical conditions to get permission from their doctor to buy marijuana from a state-sanctioned distribution facility or, in some cases, grow it themselves.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.

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