Judicial drug database access sought

By Peter H. Milliken



A local drug-court judge, local mental health and recovery officials and the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court want to give drug-court judges direct access to Ohio’s automated prescription drug monitoring program.

The program, established in 2006 and known as the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System, is a confidential database available to pharmacists, physicians, law enforcement and probation officers.

OARRS records all outpatient prescriptions for controlled substances furnished by doctors or dispensed by Ohio pharmacies.

Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to make OARRS available to drug-court judges is deeply buried on page 1799 of Ohio House Bill 49, the 2018-19 budget bill introduced this month by State Rep. Ryan Smith, chairman of the House Finance Committee.

“I think we’ve been too scattered in our approach” to the battle against drug addition, said Judge John M. Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, who has presided over a drug court for 20 years.

“We need to bring those forces together – the three branches of government” [executive, legislative and judicial] to address the crisis, he said. “We all know there’s an epidemic. We all know people are dying” in the opioid crisis.

Nineteen states allow judges and prosecutors access to their prescription drug monitoring programs, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ohio’s 96 drug courts connect nonviolent, drug-related offenders to treatment and allow dismissal of criminal charges if offenders successfully complete treatment.

If a drug-court defendant receives a legitimate pain medication prescription after suffering an injury, access to the database would let the judge identify the prescribing physician and dispensing pharmacy and the start and end date for that prescription, and it would alert the judge the defendant shouldn’t test positive for that drug long after the prescription expires, Judge Durkin said.

The judge also would be alerted to a doctor-shopping defendant, who obtains, or tries to obtain, multiple prescriptions for addictive drugs from multiple physicians and presents them at multiple pharmacies, Judge Durkin added.

“Giving judges access to the reporting system will allow them to better monitor what is going on with their drug-court clients,” said Brenda Heidinger, associate director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

“It will allow them to ensure that a person isn’t out there getting prescriptions or going to the ER [emergency room] and getting prescriptions for medications that may be harmful to their recovery,” she added.

“I think it would be beneficial because it’s another tool for the judge and the drug-court staff to be able to ensure the sobriety of the clients,” said David Stillwagon, executive director of the Community Corrections Association in Youngstown.

“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,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court.

“Courts and key justice partners must be able 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,” she added.

Judicial access to Ohio’s prescription drug database was discussed at an eight-state regional opioid initiative conference convened in Cincinnati last August by the chief justice, said Judge Durkin, who was one of two Ohio judges in attendance.

Several of Ohio’s neighboring states make prescription databases available to judges, he added.

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