BY LINDSAY WHITEHURST
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah will obey a court order to let the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration search a prescription-drug database without a warrant, despite a state law designed to protect patient privacy.
The state disagrees with the ruling that found people can’t expect privacy in the highly regulated prescription-drug industry, but state attorneys have decided not to appeal after reviewing similar cases, said Utah Attorney General’s Office spokesman Dan Burton in a statement Monday.
A federal appeals court also sided with the DEA in a case involving subpoenas of Oregon’s prescription-drug database.
All states maintain similar databases to help doctors and pharmacists prevent overprescribing amid a national opioid-drug epidemic. The databases hold records of medications like the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and sleep aid Ambien as well as opioid painkillers.
Utah is among a minority of states requiring police to get a warrant before they search the database. Utah state law enforcement will still have to follow the law, Burton said.
American Civil Liberties Union of Utah attorney John Mejia said he’s disappointed in Utah’s decision not to appeal the federal court judge’s ruling.
The DEA fought to be exempt from the law, saying the searches are an important tool in early investigations. The agency sued after agents asked to search the database to find out whether a medical provider was prescribing drugs to members of a criminal organization with ties overseas.
Officials refused to allow the search without a warrant, following a law that passed after two firefighters were wrongly charged with prescription-drug fraud following a wide-ranging search of the database in an ambulance drug theft investigation.
The firefighters were not linked to the thefts, but their relatively high number of prescriptions raised suspicion. The charges were later dropped after they showed all the drugs were properly prescribed, but still put their careers and personal lives at risk, they said.
The firefighters union joined the case to keep the DEA out of the database, as did an LGBT group. Equality Utah argued that the searches violate the privacy of transgender people whose hormone medications are recorded in the database.
But U.S. District Judge David Nuffer decided last month that database queries don’t violate laws against unreasonable search and seizure because the prescription drugs are already tightly controlled.
“Prescription drugs are a highly regulated industry in which patients and doctors do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he wrote in the ruling handed down last month.
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