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Bill would give judges access to prescription database in Ohio

Special to the Legal News

Published: March 13, 2017

A new push to gives judges access to a prescription drug database is quietly gaining ground in Ohio.

Buried deep within House Bill 49, the state's fiscal year operating budget bill introduced last month by State Rep. Ryan Smith, is Gov. John Kasich's proposal to give drug court judges direct access the Ohio's automated prescription drug monitoring program.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor applauded the governor's proposal and has urged the General Assembly to move the legislation as quickly as possible.

Established in 2006 and known as OARRS, the system collects information on all outpatient prescriptions for controlled substances dispensed by Ohio-licensed pharmacies and those personally furnished by licensed prescribers in Ohio.

Drug wholesalers are also required to submit information on all controlled substances sold to an Ohio licensed pharmacy or prescriber.

"As the only statewide electronic database that stores all controlled substance dispensing and personal furnishing information, OARRS helps prescribers and pharmacists avoid potentially life-threatening drug interactions as well as identify individuals fraudulently obtaining controlled substances from multiple health care providers, a practice commonly referred to as 'doctor shopping,'" the program's website states.

"It can also be used by professional licensing boards to identify or investigate clinicians with patterns of inappropriate prescribing and dispensing, and to assist law enforcement in cases of controlled substance diversion."

The relevant portion of HB 49 states, "On receipt of a request from a judge of a program certified by the Ohio supreme court as a specialized docket program for drugs, the board shall provide to the judge, or an employee of the program who is designated by the judge to receive the information, information from the database that relates specifically to a current or prospective program participant."

"At a time when Ohio faces the most significant drug abuse problem in its history with the opioid epidemic crippling individuals, families and our state, it is important that our courts have access to every tool available to combat this scourge," Justice O'Connor told the Supreme Court's news service. "I applaud Gov. Kasich's initiative and, as I have in the past, support expanding access to this critical tool."

The move comes at a time when Ohio has been labeled "ground zero" for illicit fentanyl use in the United States by a new report that documents the deadly synthetic opioid's path, typically from China to American users.

According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, which collects results from state and local forensic laboratories, Ohio had the most investigative fentanyl samples tested out of any state in 2015.

That year, Ohio documented 3,897 samples or fentanyl, compared to state with the second most samples, Massachusetts at 2,556.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic drug that is about 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

The drug was introduced more than 50 years ago as treatment for severe pain, typically for terminal or cancer patients, but has since gained popularity on the streets as an incredibly potent alternative to typical street drugs.

Last year, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations documented for the first time the use of carfentanil, an animal tranquilizer 100 times stronger than fentanyl. The agency reported 214 positive tests for the substance in 2016.

If the governor's proposal is approved, Ohio would join 19 states that allow access to their prescription drug programs by judges and prosecutors.

Though privacy is a concern, the Chief Justice said that it is essential for courts and key justice partners "to understand the prescription history of individuals under court supervision so that we can identify, treat and hold them accountable to the law based on a fuller understanding of their drug use."

Currently, Ohio drug courts do have limited access to OARRS, but only through probation officers.

By giving judges access to the database, the goal is to speed up response times in the justice system.

"Judges use sensitive information to make life-altering decisions every day in every courtroom across this state," O'Connor told the high court's news service. "Drug abuse is often the foundation for a host of other social and criminal justice problems. It is not unreasonable that we provide judges with the tools needed to make better decisions."

Ohio has 96 certified drug courts including the TIES program in Franklin County.

Although access to the OARRS would not include a defendant's illicit drug use, it would allow judges to pair a defendant's history of drug convictions with any prescription drug use or evidence of doctor shopping to provide a more complete picture of a defendant's situation and make treatment recommendations.

HB 49 has been referred to the House Finance Committee.

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